Heritage policies in France

The conception of heritage by public administrations has long been based on its supposedly unique and irreplaceable monumental, artistic or historical character. According to this logic, the alteration of an element considered as such would constitute an immeasurable loss for the nation, implying its management by the authorities. Even if this logic certainly draws its roots from the Judeo-Christian cult of the trace, it was particularly affirmed during the French Revolution, when the destruction of the monumental and artistic vestiges of the Old Regime were condemned in particular by the Abbé Gregory in his Report on the destruction wrought by vandalism, and on the means of repressing it of 1794.

The situation before 1945

In a different political context, this logic was consolidated during the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century when certain buildings, objects or archaeological remains were considered as unique tracksor even masterpieces glorious artistic and historical episodes of the homeland he agreed to keep. After many debates, the State then took care of their conservation, by creating an administrative body responsible for the identification and conservation of what were then called “historical monuments”. A post ofgeneral inspector of historic buildings was thus created in 1830, followed in 1838 by the Commission of Historic Monuments responsible for examining the work to be carried out in the monuments, the list of which, published in 1840, was enriched over time.

This system was supplemented almost fifty years later by the law of March 30, 1887 on historical monumentsreplaced by law of December 31, 1913 to improve certain defects but also to adapt it to the consequences of the law of December 9, 1905 relating to the separation of Church and State. This law largely constitutes the core of the current legislation in this area, despite some subsequent adjustments relating in particular to the application of the law of July 23, 1927 which establishes a second level of protection (registration in the additional inventory of Historic Monuments), then the Law No. 92 of February 25, 1943 which establishes an authorization for work on buildings located in the field of visibility of historical monuments.

The turn of the 1960s

Parallel to this first logic according to which the mere existence of historic monuments implies that they protects, preserves, restores and enhancespublic action in the field of heritage has also been based, since the 1960s, on its typical character. Here it is no longer the unique or even material aspect of a building or an object that constitutes the heart of public action, but rather its capacity to testify to the typicality (or authenticity) of the country, a region, a place, or even a community. This new conception emerged under the administration of André Malraux, Prime Minister of Cultural Affairs from 1959 to 1969, whose heritage policy was based essentially on two great actions.

The first is linked to the adoption of the Law No. 62-903 of August 4, 1962 on safeguarded sectors, the objective of which is to protect historic urban complexes (including that of the Marais from 1964), while the town planning promoted by the public authorities in order to modernize cities and curb “poor housing” only carried little interest in city centers and their history. This law is thus based on the idea that state action should not have as its sole objective the protection of each of the monuments and buildings making up these urban spaces, but rather their interrelation which constitutes their character and architectural uniqueness.

During his speech before the National Assembly, before the adoption of this law, André Malraux argued as follows: “In the last century, the historical heritage of each nation consisted of a set of monuments. The monument, the building, was protected like a statue or a painting. The State protected it as a major work of an era, as a masterpiece. But nations are no longer sensitive to masterpieces, they are become to the mere presence of their past. Here is the decisive point: they have discovered […] that in architecture an isolated masterpiece risks being a dead masterpiece; that if the palace of Versailles, the cathedral of Chartres belong to the noblest dreams of men, this palace and this cathedral surrounded by skyscrapers, would belong only to archeology.” (National Assembly, 2nd session of July 23, 1962).

This approach based on enhancing the typicality of town centers is also found in the second axis of André Malraux’s policy, namely the application of the decree n° 64-203 of March 4, 1964 establishing the national commission responsible for preparing the general inventory of the monuments and artistic riches of France. According to the same logic, the latter aimed to identify, study and make known (and not to protect or classify) all the heritage elements of the country, “from the teaspoon to the cathedral” – in the words of André Malraux –, of which France would abound, and which would be typical of its history, its architecture and more generally of its art.

The new conception of heritage is accompanied by a transformation in the use of terms. The notion of heritage asserted itself between the 1960s and 1980s, gradually encompassing those of historical monuments, preserved sectors and fine arts. Under the ministry of Jean-Philippe Lecat (from 1978 to 1981), the architecture department as well as the archeology and inventory departments were thus integrated in 1978 into a new heritage department, while a “heritage year” is programmed in 1980 in order to make the French people better aware of their heritage in a broader sense (including architecture and the fine arts, but also music, cinema and literature). Ethnographic heritage, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, was also gradually recognized at this time, notably through the founding, in 1980, of the ethnological heritage mission. Finally, that same year, the general inventory of monuments and artistic treasures of France was renamed general inventory of cultural heritage. This popularization of the term heritage is also quickly found in the scientific literature and in the press of the time.

Processing since 1981

This new approach was affirmed between 1981 and 1995 under the presidency of François Mitterrand who, with his Minister of Culture Jack Lang, transformed the role of the administration in this area. In line with the political values ​​it promotes, the Government no longer has the role of defining the components of French heritage. On the contrary, he must make sure to accompany local authorities and citizens in the definition of what they consider to be “their” heritage, on the basis of its typicality. This new policy quickly resulted in a profound opening of the concept of heritage. Following the ethnographic heritage, maritime, gastronomic, industrial and technical heritages emerged from the 1980s. We then speak more and more of heritage in the plural rather than in the singular to signify the extension of this notion, recognized and supported by the State. In 2010, a new Directorate General for Heritage was created, encompassing the former Directorates for Architecture and Heritage, Archives and Museums of France.

This new policy results in a second boom in the number of registered and classified historical monuments (but also, as a corollary, the number of museums exhibiting them), as well as the emergence of new methods of protection that go beyond the material nature of objects and buildings (we are of course thinking here of the intangible cultural heritage). This approach also lasted well beyond the 2000s, even if it was punctuated by very strong criticism within the Ministry of Culture itself. Many are indeed those who then point the finger at an “uncontrolled” opening of the heritage as well as the criteria and the methodologies on which its conservation is based by denouncing a “hyperheritageand extensively documented “heritage abuse” in theoretical and practical literature throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

Heritage policies in France