interviews
Interview
French language

Philippe Bélaval, president of the Centre des monuments nationaux

With the Cité internationale de la langue française, we all have the feeling that we are doing something useful, for a region, for culture, and for our country.

The Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) has been entrusted with the restoration of the Château de Villers-Cotterêts, which will house the Cité Internationale de la Langue Française. Philippe Bélaval, President of the CMN, presents this ambitious project to us as it opens its doors to the public next autumn. 

Updated on 18/03/2022

5 min

Image
Philippe Bélaval
Crédits
Philippe Bélaval © Didier Plowy - CMN

First of all, can you tell us what stage the project is at as a whole? What is the timetable for the opening of the Cité internationale de la langue française, both in terms of activities and receiving the public?

This project had several phases from the start. Restoring and finding structures to use in a space of over 20,000 square metres can only be done gradually. However, the project has been considerably accelerated thanks to the additional funding we obtained under the recovery plan. The restoration is currently at an advanced stage and will be completed before the end of the year. However, the work has had its setbacks because the castle was in a very poor state of repair. The health crisis has also slowed down the project.

There will be a first event in March, during the Semaine Internationale de la Francophonie, from 18 to 20 March. We will open the chateau to the public to allow them to discover a number of heritage objects dating from the time of Francis I.

The official opening of the permanent exhibition will take place next autumn, and the full opening in spring 2023. This is an operation that will have been carried out in barely five years, for a total investment of 180 million euros, despite the very dilapidated state of the site. 

 

The ecosystem of the French language and the French-speaking world is particularly vast. What place is the Cité destined to occupy in this whole?

One of the most stimulating aspects of this project is that it must necessarily be deeply rooted in its location, and that it must therefore contribute to the influence and development of its region. At the same time, it has a vocation to interact with the whole world, since today there are French-speaking communities in almost every country in the world. All over the world, intellectuals and artists are interested in the French language and the culture it conveys. These two national and international dimensions are absolutely inseparable, and take the form of two networks of partnerships, in order to mobilise both the stakeholders in the field and relay the Cité's activities in all Francophone circles. This will be achieved through the various Francophone bodies, such as the Organisation de la Francophonie and Senghor University. The Cité will thus be able to invite artists, intellectuals, teachers and students from all over the world.

The dynamism of the French language extends far beyond France, and the Cité internationale de la langue française will make visitors aware of these facts.

Can you tell us a few words about the permanent exhibition?

The Cité will above all offer activities that are intended to be temporary, such as residencies, exhibitions, conferences, concerts, events and shows. We will have a large auditorium, particularly to host readings, which are central to my view.

However, it was essential to give a backbone to this ensemble, to guarantee a space that is always open to the public, and a permanent exhibition that also plays the role of a manifesto. The curator of this exhibition, Xavier North, refers to it as a 'trailer'. An expression that clearly shows how this exhibition will highlight the way in which the French language has been one of the most determining elements of French identity. It also tells of its influence, which includes very positive aspects, and other more problematic ones, such as colonisation, which was obviously an important factor in the spread of the French language. The aim is to offer an educational journey through this rich and complex history, while placing the French language in the midst of the other languages with which it is in constant dialogue. The exhibition will show the mechanisms by which the French language regenerates and enriches itself, for example with the contribution of French literature from the Caribbean or Africa. The dynamism of the French language extends far beyond France, and the exhibition will make visitors aware of these facts. 

 

The Cité is a heritage project with a strong emphasis on innovation. How will this be reflected in the offerings to the public?

The permanent exhibition will be largely digital. There will of course be precious, significant objects to see at the Cité. But language remains a fairly abstract reality, which cannot be summed up in objects. Through maps, animations, films and computer graphics, digital technology will enable us to better show how a language evolves, spreads, changes, etc. This digital tour will be presented in several languages, to reach non-French speaking audiences. Some of these devices are at the forefront of technological innovation, and will even use artificial intelligence. So it will offer audiences something very innovative and surprising. For example, we will be able to hear how French was spoken over the centuries, at the time of Joan of Arc, Francis I or Louis XIV. Beyond the permanent exhibition, digital technology will be present in all aspects of the Cité: for example, there is talk of setting up an incubator for innovative companies working with the French-speaking world and the educational uses of the language. 

 

Would you like to say a few words about your personal relationship with this project?

This project is particularly dear to me, because it was entrusted especially to the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, taking into account the expertise that the President of the Republic has entrusted to us in the design and implementation of cultural projects that involve different components. All of our departments are involved in the project, and we have a dedicated team on site. So we all have the feeling that we are doing something useful, for a region, for culture, and for our country. But also, to have been able to contribute to saving an important monument that has been very unfairly treated in recent years.

The Institut français and the project

The Institut français will participate in publicizing the action of the Cité internationale de la langue française in the French-speaking world. 

L'institut français, LAB