France: Le President digs up trouble.

France: Le President digs up trouble. - Landscape gardening can be a muddier business than politics when the President plans to redesign a beloved Parisian haunt. Claudette Dupre reports.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Landscape gardening can be a muddier business than politics when the President plans to redesign a beloved Parisian haunt. Claudette Dupre reports.

As Saddam Hussein marched on Kuwait, the brow of French President Francois Mitterrand was seen to become increasingly clouded. Observers who might reasonably have concluded that M Mitterrand's mind was troubled by images of regional instability and mass destruction would have been wrong, however. As it turns out, the President de la Republique's frowns were of a different provenance: gardening.

On his early-morning strolls through Paris's Jardin des Tuileries, M Mitterrand had come to the conclusion that his capital's city centre park was a disgrace, "un vrai scandale". While other world leaders pondered the Kurdish question and mulled over the new world order, the French President's thoughts turned to the raggedness of the Tuileries' lime avenues, the insouciance of its herbaceous borders. Roughly at the time that the final touches were being put to Operation Desert Storm, M Mitterrand announced his own horticultural final conflict: an entirely new Jardin des Tuileries, comprising some 280,000 square metres of downtown Paris, taking five full years to complete and involving the expenditure of (unconfirmed, but reputedly 250) millions of francs, all under the personal imprimatur of the President himself as an official "grand projet".

It had, taken all in all, been a good year for French gardens, if not quite so rosy for French taxpayers. A few months before, M Mitterrand's Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, had announced presidential approval for another FFr 250 million (£25 million) project, this time to be spent on the restoration of Louis XIV's pleasure gardens at the chateau of Versailles. Versailles' gardens have suffered two centuries of neglect since the last occupants moved out under unhappy circumstances.

Republican Gallicism notwithstanding, Lang's announcement was greeted with widespread public approval. The hurricane of February 1988 had decimated the original "coups de perspective" of the gardens' designer, Andre Le Notre, "jardinier du roi" to Louis XIV, whose paternity as father of French formal gardening remains uncontested. With cartesian thoroughness, the Ministry of Culture had appointed a team of experts, drawn from the great and good of French gardening, to consider to what stage of Le Notre's 27-year planning and replanning of Versailles' grounds the gardens should be restored. Manured hands were wrung publicly over such horticultural arcana as whether Marie-Antoinette's Jardin Anglais - a later, and non-French, interloper - should be allowed to remain. (Be calm: it is.) French honour was done, French "amour propre" and the French taxpayer well satisfied.

Monsieur Mitterrand might, therefore, have reasonably assumed that his plans for the Tuileries would have met with similar, vote-catching acclaim. If so, events since the unveiling of the plans and model for the new gardens in July must have been a sore disappointment. Delayed in their public debut by three months, the plans have provoked an unbridled display of Parisian grumpiness. There have been various reasons for this. One is that Le Notre, who designed the gardens for the now-defunct Tuileries palace, died in 1695. So the disembowelling of his Parisian garden will coincide with the tercentenary of his death: a curious form of monument, suggest the not inconsiderable band of French Le Notristes.

Another cause of unpopularity is that M Mitterrand seems to be in a minority of one in not liking the Tuileries as they are. Knee deep in poodle ordure they may be; home to a variety of black economists, including illicit polaroid photographers and peddlers of mechanical pigeons; tattered and dusty; but Parisians have a stubborn fondness for the Tuileries, and do not want to see them altered one jot.

The President has apparently himself chosen the two teams of "paysagistes jardiniers" who will create the new gardens. One team, Cribier and Benech, is young, has never done a public garden before and is noted as a bunch of "enfants terribles". At least they are French: the other team is headed by Jacques Wirtz, who is - "tiens" - a Belgian. The visitors' book at the exhibition pavilion is excoriating. "How", writes one enraged Parisian, "can a head of state, responsible for the people and heritage of France, have done such a thing?"

All of this horticultural fulmination is, it seems, merely part of a larger presidential malaise. At the beginning of his presidency M Mitterrand captivated Parisians by his enlightened approach to patronage of the arts. When Chinese-American architect I M Pei was engaged to construct a glass and steel pyramid in the middle of the Louvre's forecourt, however, the first murmured "Zuts" began to be heard.

When this was followed, in short order, by the universally loathed Opera de la Bastille and the vast triumphalist arch at La Defense - all "grands projets" under specific presidential patronage - these cries became more mutinous. Triumphal arches were the stuff of kings, not of presidents. And now the President's redesigning of a garden last comprehensively redesigned on the orders of the Sun King is provoking hollow laughter about France's elected monarchy.

Sensing trouble, the Ministry of Culture seems to have suggested to the presidential "paysagistes jardiniers" that they water down their original and rather wackier plans for the gardens. (Cribier and Benech had, for example, wanted to designate one area as a "living embroidery".)

The war in the Gulf may yet be perceived as having been a soft option, compared with M Mitterrand's own presidential war of the roses.

(Claudette Dupre is a freelance writer.)

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