With the Loire Woman, the 230,000 people of Tours, 150 miles southwest of Paris, have once again assumed their role as national representatives - arguing passionately over a work of art before it is even begun.
There is nothing France loves better than a heartfelt argument, over just about anything. Politics here generally revolve around polemics. But if the dispute is about ideas - or even better, art - that is France's highest form of national discourse, guaranteed to occupy columnists, nourish fancy dinner conversations and fill cafes with pros and cons.
Historically, French people at the time argued vehemently over the Versailles Palace, the Eiffel Tower and Impressionist painters, not to mention I.M. Pei's glass pyramids at the Louvre. All are generally admired by now. But art lovers had at it again more recently over out-of-sync exhibitions by Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami in the usually august salons of Versailles.
In Tours, clients at the city's hottest tea salon these days are talking about nothing but the Loire Woman, a regular customer reports. In the wider world, more than 11,000 residents participated in a week-long survey organized by the Tours newspaper, the Nouvelle Republique. Results published Friday showed 49 percent opposed the project outright, 38 percent supported it and 13 percent endorsed the statue but preferred to see it erected at a site different from the one planned.
Michel Audiard, the puckish local sculptor who launched the $3.8 million project, says he has nothing against his opponents. A number of national publications have been talking about the controversy since it erupted, he pointed out, promoting his fame as a creator even among those who might hate his art.
"This has created a great buzz," he said in his studio on the edge of town, smiling contentedly. "It's magnificent."
Audiard, 60, is perhaps best known for his quirky designer fountain pens, one of which was given to then-President Bill Clinton as a protocol gift. Here in Tours, he authored the unusual wall of a McDonald's restaurant that is covered with images of famous people and their most humorous quotes, including nuggets from Marilyn Monroe, Winston Churchill, Charles Baudelaire and Woody Allen.
Audiard was born in Paris but chose early on to live in the Tours area. After several years in one of the chateaux that line the Loire nearby, he moved to the city and set up an art studio and specialty metallurgy shop in an industrial zone.
Audiard said he has done only one monument-size sculpture before, a 45-foot-high commission looking out over the sea in Equatorial Guinea, due to be inaugurated in June. But he has been thinking about the Loire Woman one way or another for a quarter of a century, he said, as a way to glorify the main river running through his adopted region.
In a bow to the environment, the statue will be constructed out of cardboard, plaster and other materials designed to be recyclable, he said. "She will herald tomorrow's habitat," Audiard declared grandly on a Web site dedicated to his project.
Mayor Jean Germain, who embraced the idea of paying homage to the life-giving river, in 2008 granted Audiard a 50-year lease to a piece of city-owned hilltop near the Sainte-Radegonde suburb, with a provision that whatever sits on the site reverts to the city after 50 years. The lease and the statue project were approved without opposition by the Tours city council and, in public at least, Germain has not changed his support despite the uproar.
Armed with the okay, Audiard made plans to start two years of construction this summer. The project was attractive to City Hall, Audiard pointed out, because it would not cost the taxpayers of Tours.
Using a tax deduction granted by the French government to promote art, he has organized a group of business donors who have put up about half a million dollars.
But when the previously unnoticed council vote became known last month, the trouble began, just down the hill.
The slope from Audiard's site leads to ruins of the Marmoutier Abbey and the buildings where Saint Martin lived in the 4th century and founded the first monastery in this part of France. Part of the abbey is now a Roman Catholic school, run by the sisters of the Sacred Heart, but the ruins are an important segment in the early history of Christianity in the territory. They were a destination for pilgrims over several centuries.
Alerted by newspaper coverage, parents and others connected to the school objected that looking up at the hillside ruins to see the profile of a 50-foot-high reclining nude would be clashingly inappropriate. Moreover, they said, plans include a reception area and perhaps a performance venue under the statue's legs, implying new roads and parking areas that would degrade the centuries-old shrine.
"We couldn't believe it," said Edouard de Germay, a Tours doctor who has helped organize opposition to the plan. "We thought it was a joke at first. Marmoutier is a site with a great historical value."
Germay and others who oppose the project organized a petition on the Internet. Within three weeks, it attracted nearly 6,000 respondents, he said, and signatures are still coming in. Germay said the petition would be presented to Germain and the regional prefect, Joel Filly, before the end of the month.
Lionel Bejeau, who presides over the Sainte-Radegonde neighborhood committee, said he and others opposing the project have nothing against the statue. Their objection, he explained, is to where it would sit.
"We have nothing against painting and art," he said. "We just don't think the statue should be here."