Speech by the president of the French republic at the inauguration of the “History begins in Mesopotamia” exhibition at the louvre-lens museum (1 November 2016)


Madam Minister, Dear Audrey Azoulay,

Mr President of the Hauts-de-France region, we will not part without a thought for the first stones we laid for industrial plants, from Calais to Lens.

I would also like to welcome Michel Dagbert, President of the Pas-de-Calais Departmental Council. I know how committed he is to issues which are of concern to us, both in recent days and in the days ahead.

I would like to welcome all representatives, including, of course, the Mayor of Lens, the Mayor of Liévin and everyone who worked in the region to achieve this result.

I would also like to welcome our Iraqi friends who are here among us and who have done us the honour of taking part in this exhibition on Mesopotamia. They are at home here, because these works belong to them, belong to us all.

Finally, I want to emphasize to the Director of the Louvre and all his colleagues how impressed I have been by all the work achieved here since the opening of the Louvre-Lens Museum. This exhibition, which I will come back to in a moment, is one more example of this. Four years ago, I was here for the inauguration of the Louvre Lens Museum. It was in December 2012 and at the time, it was a huge territorial, economic, architectural and cultural gamble. And today, we can all agree that the gamble has well and truly paid off. This territory, your territory, has embraced the Louvre, has taken ownership of it and made it its own: the Louvre Lens.

Over two million visitors have passed through here in the last four years. This coal-mining area was proud to be a land which, with its history, was also able to welcome history on a larger scale. It is also true that these exceptional facilities have enabled us to generate a wide range of activities. Some tourist activities have created between 600 and 800 direct and indirect jobs.

This is another opportunity to pay tribute to this Republican continuity mentioned by Xavier Bertrand, and to everyone who organized this project from the start - President Jacques Chirac, the culture ministers around him, local representatives and Daniel Percheron. Jack Lang also contributed by persuasively extolling to everyone the merits of the project, usually with great success. Together, we have been able, you have been able, to launch the Louvre-Lens but there also had to be a continuation: Xavier Bertrand today for the region, Sylvain Robert who took over from Guy Delcourt and then Jean-Luc Martinez for the Louvre Museum, who himself replaced Henri Loyrette. We must not forget the sponsors who have remained loyal and who have made these fantastic facilities possible.

It is true that they are original in many ways. They had to blend into the landscape, not be at odds with it; the incredible Galerie du Temps, with its works and the renewal which we wanted to ensure, had to be free of charge.

They also had to house exhibitions which themselves had to be magnificent and unique, such as “Renaissance Europe”, “The Etruscans and the Mediterranean”, “Ancient Egypt”, “Painting in the Golden Century”, not forgetting the unforgettable “Disasters of War”, which also evoked the memorial history of this Hauts-de-France region.

Many visitors have come from this region and the rest of France. Many have come from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and all of France. So this Museum is not just regional or national - it is international, European, which is why Europe helped to fund it. The Louvre did not set up in this mining region as if to provide cultural compensation for the area’s working-class history. No, the Louvre-Lens came here to put down its roots in this mining region, and fed off its history, to finally blend in almost effortlessly.

There is this architecture, this glass building which was also a democratic desire, to show that a museum itself could be a work of art, even for those passing by. This Louvre, which was able to enter the region’s artistic and cultural fibre with great vitality, now means that there is an entire cultural network in the Hauts-de-France region, such as the Lille Métropole Museum of Modern, Contemporary and Outsider Art (LaM) in Villeneuve d’Ascq, the Ballet du Nord, “La Piscine” Museum in Roubaix, the Lille National Orchestra and the Musée de Picardie. In short, all these cultural offerings mean that tours can be organized which bring visitors all over the region.

On 17 November, another national institution will open: the Arab World Institute in Tourcoing, which can organize exhibitions and create its own institution. It was Daniel Percheron’s idea, which became a reality thanks to the determination of Jack Lang, President of the Arab World Institute, and the commitment of President Bertrand, the Mayor of Tourcoing, Gérald Darmanin, and local representatives.

The Arab World Institute in Tourcoing will be a place for exhibitions, conferences, concerts and educational displays and its permanent collection will house unique artwork, open to all, on loan from the Arab World Institute. This marks a new stage in the decentralization movement which we wanted to create, meaning that the Centre Pompidou is in Metz, treasures from the Château de Versailles are on display in Arras, collections from the Musée d’Orsay are on tour all over - including in your region - and we can therefore make these works of art available to everyone. But this does not yet mean that they are accessible to all. We must take action for artistic education, and for training young people so that people who are not necessarily familiar with cultural works or who are fearful or apprehensive about entering a cultural site can do so without hesitation.

Free admission is one way of encouraging this, but not the only way. We must create this environment, this trust, this sense of being educational; we must ensure that there is an element of fun - as is increasingly the case with new technology - while at the same time learning; people should leave the museum with a better idea of our history and its significance.

This is what also led me to open up a new chapter in the Lens-Liévin area with the forthcoming construction of the Louvre Conservation Centre in Liévin, the first plaque of which we have just revealed.

This Conservation Centre will be unrivalled in Europe. So what exactly is it?

The idea is to move the artwork in the storerooms of the Louvre Museum, hundreds of thousands of pieces of art, yes hundreds of thousands, under the supervision of the President-Director of the Louvre, to the Hauts-de-France region, here in Lens-Liévin, so that they can not only be conserved, but preserved and even retouched or restored.

Indeed, there was an incident not long ago, in June. There was heavy rain and we feared that the Louvre storerooms could be flooded. I remember the hours spent late at night where I saw the Louvre staff working tirelessly to move the art to a safe place, to bring it upstairs. This only increased our resolve to move the contents of the Louvre storerooms to a location which would not only be secure, but also protected, and which would have enough space, using all modern techniques. The decision was thus made to move them to Liévin to maintain a form of continuity.

It took major investment (€60 million), shared between the Louvre, i.e. the French State, and the region to acquire the land which Laurent Duporge made available to us, while meeting all the conditions to ensure a successful operation. I would like to thank him.

The Centre’s design must be particularly open and harmonious. This was the challenge laid down by the Prime Minister to the town planner Jean-Louis Subileau, whose conclusions must be submitted in the next few days and who will create a hugely interesting project as part of an overall discussion on developing a mining area. The future Conservation Centre will help to redevelop the territory. It is here that we must merge the two projects, and not take the view that culture must replace development. No, culture must go hand-in-hand, culture must think ahead, culture must accelerate, but also, new technology must allow culture to stand out.

As I have said, the main purpose of the Centre in Liévin will be to house the artwork from the storerooms of the Louvre Museum. But we must also consider another purpose, which sadly is linked to the events, dramas and tragedies occurring around the world. Places where artwork is in danger because barbaric terrorists have chosen to destroy it, in particular in Syria and Iraq, as well as in other countries. The terrorists do not simply want to destroy men, women and children - regardless of their religion - their goal is to destroy every trace of humanity, which therefore includes our artwork.

We also have traffickers because unfortunately in today’s world everything is open to trafficking: humans, as we have seen with the refugees, as well as drugs, weapons and artwork. We must therefore protect world heritage and in early December we will hold a very important conference on the issue in Abu Dhabi, under the responsibility of Jack Lang. The international community will decide to protect, develop and finance the restoration of a number of pieces of art and we will stress that it is in the Liévin Conservation Centre that they can be protected.

So the Conservation Centre is not just a cultural issue, it is also political to the highest degree. Ultimately, it is there that a part of civilization, of humanity, can also be preserved.

My message is that to fight terrorism, we must take action. At this very moment, French troops are conducting simultaneous operations from our aircraft carrier and from a base in Abu Dhabi; we also have an artillery battery and we are preparing to support the Iraqi troops to win back Mosul. This is an extremely difficult and important military and humanitarian operation as Mosul is the capital of Daesh’s pseudo-caliphate. We must also ensure that our armies, who have a role to play as part of a coalition, can prepare for post-Mosul, i.e. ensure that politically, peace is restored throughout Iraq, which will also apply to our operations in Syria.

It is also very important that the artwork can be protected because the terrorists will want to destroy everything, leaving nothing behind, and that too is our responsibility: to save people, to protect those who are weakest: Christian minorities; Yazidis, whom we know; the Kurds, some of whom are represented here today, and of course the Iraqi population in all its diversity. Our duty is to protect persons, as well as cultural heritage.

A few moments ago, I was talking about our plans following Mr Martinez’s report so that the Abu Dhabi conference can make important decisions and I am still hopeful that this will be the case. G7 meetings were held last June with the world’s richest countries and we agreed that we must make every effort to organize an international conference. It will indeed take place and it will have immediate effects, with the creation of a fund.

But I will now get back to the main issue for us all here today: the exhibition. It is no coincidence that this exhibition is taking place at this time. We wanted to hold it now, at a time when works belonging to the common heritage of humanity are endangered, in Iraq and Syria; we wanted to set out a representation of Mesopotamia, “where history begins”, and where our history is at stake. This exhibition displays masterpieces which we have discovered, masterpieces which form our roots, very ancient roots, dating back to 4,000 years before Jesus Christ, sometimes more, which represent our heritage, our civilization. They must not simply be protected by international law, although we are indeed bound by that obligation, but they must convince us that we belong to the same world, that we come from the same world, we share the same history.

Six thousand years ago, in this land between the two rivers, in what is now Iraq, humanity began to develop. It was there that man tamed the instruments which gave him freedom: writing, arithmetic, urban systems, trade, even political organization, but also irrigation, weaving, bricks and archways. And in these plains which are now bloody battlefields, mythological figures were born, before filling the imaginations of hundreds of millions of humans around the world.

Such is the symbol of this exhibition: it shows us that we come from there, and that events there can also directly affect us. Among our citizens, there are always those who think that they come from nowhere and can protect themselves from everything, who believe that to live in peace they just need to shut themselves away and that any foreigners, any outsiders, are threats to their own society. There are those who think that the population movements caused by war in no way affect our own lives, even when history has proven the contrary: the events which unfolded thousands of years ago in Iraq, in Mesopotamia, were the beginning of what we believed to be civilization, through creation, trade and communication. We can be thankful that these techniques continued, to advance the human race.

But what the best was able to do, the worst can also achieve. By that I mean that we must make everyone understand that our mission today, alongside our Iraqi friends, is to provide comprehensive support: we have shown that we are providing military, humanitarian and cultural support. We must also explain to our citizens that naturally, we must protect our borders. This is essential, as otherwise there can be no trust, no protection; but we must also take in those who have a right to asylum. But we must do this in different locations, so that all our difficulties are not focused on the same areas. This is what we did by evacuating people from Calais, for which I would like to once again thank the representatives here today and the services of the State and Madam Prefect; we made sure that all of France played a part, and it did so responsibly and with dignity. I would like to commend all local representatives who were able to open these reception and guidance centres proposed and funded by the State so that we can spread these migrants and refugees out across France and examine their situations. We will do the same for minors, so that they can be housed in centres, provided with support, and so that the British authorities fully shoulder their responsibility.

This is the symbol of what we are doing today and what culture allows us to better explain. It is always culturally that we develop the French exception. Humanity may not have known about it if French archaeologists had not unearthed the first Assyrian antiques in the mid 19th century. That is what is often said of France. France is a universal country. This does not mean a country which does not value itself highly, but rather one which believes that its greatest strength is to share its value with others, to spread its influence.

This exhibition and the inauguration of what will be the Liévin Conservation Centre both invite us to return to our roots. It is a return to the earliest civilization, our own, and to our responsibility: preserving the grandeur and richness of Middle Eastern heritage. This exhibition is eminently political. It rings out like a call for peace, and to obtain peace, we must conduct a number of operations. A call for solidarity, a call to defend what is noble and what is right. That is the purpose of museums, of a major museum like the Louvre, which matches the history of the Republic; the Louvre-Lens, which matches the history of cultural decentralization at its highest level. The purpose of a museum is naturally to increase public awareness of art and cultural dialogue, but also of the responsibility borne by each of us.

That is why the Louvre-Lens is the pride of a region which is opening up to the world, but it is also, I must admit, a great source of pride for all of France to know that here, in the Hauts-de-France region, the values of the French Republic are on display for all to see.

Thank you.