With the paint-and-fix-up spirit of the U.S. Bicentenial four years ago, the French have inaugurated a "Year of Patrimony" to impress even the most apathetic Gaul with the importance of his cultural heritage.
Conceived by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the observance is not linked to a particular historical anniversary. Instead, the protectors of the national heritage say it is a response to the "cry of alarm" over the public's lack of sufficient appreciation for France's artistic and social past.
Deteriorating stone farms and country chapels, as well as tools of traditional but outmoded industries and handcrafts, are in danger of disappearing because it is, after all, cheaper to remember than to save. "If we don't sensitize people now, in 50 years we'll have nothing left," said Veronique Leprette of the Ministry of Culture.
Consequently, the "Year of Patrimony" is concentrating attention on the mundane and prosaic as well as the grandiose. "The French are impressed by the magnificent buildings but not the little ordinary ones," said Gilbert Goret of the Department of Historical Monuments and Sites. "There is a tendency to talk about Versailles but to pass by the last remaining fountain in a village without realizing its value."
For foreign tourists to France, the 1980 observance means the opening of major new museums, vastly improved informational brochures, guides and maps about the richness of France's ethnically varied regions, and an expanded calendar of events.
As a first step, the department of historical monuments has opened a visitors center and library in the Hotel Sully in Paris. Shelves and cabinets are layered with guides to chateaux, gardens, abbeys and cemeteries. Surprisingly, there never has been a comprehensive central information bank like this, although france probably has more well-preserved treasures than any other nation. Particularly helpful are tourist itineraries with a theme -- along unusual routes that provide a historical thread to heroes like Joan of Arc and to artistry, such as the handcrafting of tapestries.
In May, the restored sumptuous king's bedchamber and the mesmerizing Hall of Mirrors at Versailles will open, while Gallo-Roman excavations below the square at Notre Dame can be visited for the first time after late June. Moliere's hometown, Pezenas in southern France, will host a folklore festival in July, August and September. The village is a delightful blend of 14th- to 18th-century Mediterranean architecture.
Just north of Paris, painter Claude Monet's home at Giverny, softly immortalized in his "water lilies" series, is part of a special route along the Seine. "Rural Heritage and the Society of Non-Waste" will be the theme of an exposition starting June 1 at the 12th-century Cistercian Abbey of Senanque in Provence.
Coincidentally, the 300th anniversary of the Comedie-Francaise occurs this year, and an exposition of the theater's history will run until July 23 at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.
RATP trains and buses have begun 161 one-day tours from Paris to such sites as the World War II Allied invasion beaches in Normandy and the home of Gen. Charles deGaulle in Colombey-les-DeuxEglises. The Maison des Chambres d'Agriculture's updated guide lists "farm auberges" receiving visitors for lodging, camping or indigenous country cuisine.
Despite ruins spanning 2,000 years, French efforts to preserve old structures have been fairly recent. At the start of the French Revolution 200 years ago, many of the loveliest abbeys were in a deplorable state. Not until 1830 did the government appoint a watchdog for historical monuments. This subject also was a constant preoccupation of Victor Hugo, whose novel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" inspired the major restoration of France's most famous cathedral in the last century.
Even lately, the government has focused on post-war construction rather than re-use of old buildings. But budgets of the past four years indicate that attitude is beginning to change.
"Our big goal now is to have restored old buildings be re-used, like housing a bank in an old mansion or a conference center in an abbey," said Goret. "Because . . . why not?"
Since it began granting government aid for private restoration in 1973, the department of historical monuments has doled out more than $7 million. Now, says Goret, large corporations are beginning to inquire about how they can exercise their cultural investment duty.
Today, France has 36,000 buildings and 112,000 objects classified as historical monuments and another 200,000 surveyed but as yet unprotected from destruction. Experts have said that as many as 1 million archeological sites could qualify. Each year, 300 new buildings are added to the protected-monument roster.
Nevertheless, the average French citizen is "less sensitive than Germans, English or Belgians" to protecting the past, Goret contends. "It's probably a question of education, a problem at the base."
Though sentimental, the French personally are tempted by pragmatic compulsion to be unhesitatingly contemporary. Novelty counts for a lot.
"Destruction of small edifices is becoming very dramatic. A mayor wants a new road to go through his town. We're trying to change attitudes by organizing people at the local level," said Goret. "It's really scandalous to build a superhighway through an old farm."
"As they get richer," said Leprette, "the rural people want to have all the advantages of Parisians."
Threats of demolition to crumbling country churches are arousing enough concern that the government has initiated a "white paper" study on the subject. In contrast, downtowns of regional capitals like Tours, Rouen and Strasbourg are being turned through public and private investment to their quaint but bustling medieval milieu.
However, whether the spirit will touch the mayor of Paris is unclear. The immense ironwork pavillions of the Les Halles central markets were torn down nine years ago when the market moved to the suburbs. This roughly eight-block area had been the site of the city's central markets since the 12th century, and it is ringed by buildings and gothic churches depicting the passing of time.
At one end a space-age, glassed-in shopping mall "a l'americaine" now rises from underground. For the rest of the choice space, the mayor apparently has settled on a mediocre development scheme that will leave the heart of Paris little more than it is today -- a yawning hole in the ground.