The cronyism behind top French culture posts


Recent nominations to plum public posts in cultural institutions in France illustrate a system of cronyism and jobs-for-the-boys which President François Hollande had, at the time of his election four years ago, promised to end. Laurent Mauduit reports on the favours and backscratching at the heights of some of France’s most prestigious museums.

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A series of appointments and re-appointments to plum jobs at prestigious French public cultural institutions over recent weeks carry the hallmarks of a cronyism that President François Hollande, during his 2012 election campaign, had pledged he would stamp out under an “exemplary Republic”.  

One of these concerns the reappointment of Guy Cogeval as chairman of the public body that runs the prestigious Orsay and Orangerie art museums in Paris. The extraordinary circumstances in which he has kept his post have already been reported in the French media. Mediapart has discovered further details which make the affair even more astonishing.

Guy Cogeval. Guy Cogeval.
Guy Cogeval, a specialist in 19th century art, and in particular on the Les Nabis group of post-Impressionist painters, was first named as chairman of the public body that runs these two august arts museums on March 8th, 2008, in a decree from the then-president Nicolas Sarkozy. The law allows for a first appointment to last for five years, and reappointment for three-year terms thereafter. On March 15th, 2013, Hollande reappointed Cogeval for a further three years, a period which expired on March 8th, 2016.

The weekly TV and cultural magazine Télérama recently reported: “After months of turmoil at the Musée d'Orsay at the approach of the reappointment, or not, of Guy Cogeval at the head of this prestigious establishment, the Ministry of Culture decided to prolong his term for one year rather than three.” It continued: “The 60-year-old chairman's term of office came to an end on March 8th, and the prestigious position was obviously much sought-after. All the more so as the man, who is flamboyant but not very diplomatic, was controversial both inside and outside his establishment.”

The musée d'Orsay. The musée d'Orsay.

Télérama concluded: “A candidate to continue for a final term of three years, Guy Cogeval has in the end just been reappointed in his post by the body to which he is answerable, the Ministry of Culture, but for a period of only one year rather than the three years prescribed by ministerial decree. At the end of this period he is due to resign to become the head of a research centre on Les Nabis, painters in whom he is a specialist, which has been promised by the ministry. This unprecedented decision looks like a dubious compromise.”

A number of candidates had coveted Cogeval’s prestigious post, and he had been the object of strong criticism from staff unions who consider him to be authoritarian and abrupt. From his days as director of the Musée National des Monuments Français (from 1992 to 1998) he carried a reputation for the grand and lavish parties he hosted at his official apartment in the plush Trocadéro district of Paris's 16th arrondissement.

Culture minister Audrey Azoulay, who before her appointment in February was Hollande's advisor on cultural affairs, sought a compromise. To this end Hollande signed a decree (drawn up by Azoulay) on March 9th 2016, under which Cogeval was formally reappointed for three years, although it was agreed he will step down by March 9th 2017 at the latest, just before next year's presidential election.

The entrance to the musée de l'Orangerie. The entrance to the musée de l'Orangerie.

By signing that decree, Hollande gave his support to a highly questionable decision by Azoulay. It is difficult to imagine what ambition the chairman of a public body can have when their mandate is just for one year – which is clearly not in the interests of the institution. The decree will also create an unprecedented and quite surreal situation in 2017: a new chairman of the public body will then be nominated, but their predecessor will still be on the premises, in charge of a research centre on Les Nabis painters which will not come under the auspices of the new boss.

The official decree signed by Hollande to reappoint Cogeval makes no mention of the length of the term of his post. The law prescribes that it will last three years and the decree is not required to mention that. As such, there is no guarantee that Cogeval will step down in March 2017.

However, Mediapart has learnt that Cogeval was asked in confidence to sign a resignation letter addressed to Audrey Azoulay, dated in advance and valid from March 2017.

Mediapart has consulted a number of senior civil servants who all said that they are unaware of any precedent of this nature. According to senior law professors consulted by Mediapart, a pre-dated document is not in legal terms an irregularity, unlike a backdated document which would undoubtedly constitute forgery of a public document. The question then arises: did François Hollande sign the decree in full knowledge of the facts, or was the existence of this predated letter hidden from him?

Mediapart has also learnt that in return for signing the predated letter, Guy Cogeval has received an assurance that he can keep his official apartment at the Orsay museum beyond 2017.

The bizarre procedure organised by the culture ministry raises another key point. For at Audrey Azoulay's behest, the head of state could issue a new decree in March 2017, two months before the presidential elections, bringing in a new personality as the head of one of the country's most prestigious cultural establishments for a period of five years.

The affair is so extraordinary that it raises the question as to whether the socialist government is keeping the post open as a plum job for someone in its favour just before it faces losing power.

Contacted by Mediapart and invited to comment on the issues raised above, Guy Cogeval's public relations office at the Musée d'Orsay did not respond.

The Musée du Quai Branly (the Quai Branly Museum) was commissioned by former president Jacques Chirac to display indigenous art from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. To head the institution, Chirac chose a protégé, Stéphane Martin, a top civil servant who had served two of Chirac's ministers, in a decree dated December 30th 1998. Over the intervening years, Martin has been reappointed every time his mandate has reached its term: by Chirac himself in November 2003 and January 2005, and by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2009.

By the time his mandate last came up for renewal, in 2014, Martin had been in the job for 16 years. It is very rare that the head of a public institution in France remains in their post for so long. Yet President Hollande, who has long enjoyed good relations with Chirac despite them being political opponents, and who has taken care of a number of people in Chirac's entourage, renewed Martin's mandate for the fourth time in a decree dated December 22nd 2014.

Earlier this month, both newsletter La Lettre A (specialised in insider information from the worlds of politics and economics) and weekly news magazine L’Obs revealed that as head of the Musée du Quai Branly, Martin had hired a deputy director for patronage.

The job had been advertised as requiring five years' experience in arts patronage. But, according to L’Obs, the candidate hired had only finished university two years earlier and had held only two jobs, each for six months, as a deputy product manager. “From that point, the suspicion of favouritism spread through the corridors of the museum,” L’Obs reported.

The museum’s staff unions became involved, writing an open letter to Martin to protest that the appointment “did not respect the framework defined with the management”. Martin replied that “the brilliant initial qualification of the person recruited and the potential one might see in her seemed to me to be more important criteria than the length of her professional experience”. He had not been under pressure from anyone over the appointment he said in a statement sent to Mediapart.

Judith de Warren, standing first from left, at the 2007 Paris Debutants Ball. Judith de Warren, standing first from left, at the 2007 Paris Debutants Ball.

The suspicion of favouritism stems from the fact that the candidate is Judith de Warren, the step-daughter of Jean-Pierre Jouyet, general secretary of the French presidential offices, the Élysée Palace, where all decisions regarding presidential nominations are taken, including Martin's. Judith de Warren is the daughter from a former marriage of Jouyet's wife, Brigitte Taittinger, a heir to the vast Taittinger Champagne empire.

Meanwhile, another tailor-made mandate has just been handed to Laurent Bayle, director of the Cité de la Musique, the Paris concert hall and music museum that recently merged with the brand-new Philharmonie de Paris concert hall.Both come under the authority of the culture ministry.

Bayle has run the Cité de la Musique for 15 years – another rare example of such longevity in a major public post – and he will turn 65 on June 30th, which is the normal age limit for such posts. But two decrees written specifically for him have allowed Bayle to keep his job, and even to carry on until the age of 70.

The first decree is dated March 25th, 2016 and signed by François Hollande. Its Article 1 stipulates: “When the managing director of the establishment reaches, during his mandate, the age limit required by the aforementioned law of September 13th 1984, he retains his responsibilities until the end of his mandate.”

But Article 2 introduces a novel situation for Bayle. It states: “The first managing director of the public establishment Cité de la Musique-Philharmonie de Paris appointed under the conditions required in Article 14 of the aforementioned decree of September 24th 2015 is considered to be exercising a first mandate. His nomination may intervene before the end of the mandate mentioned in Article 28 of the same decree.”

This means that Bayle will not only be authorised to conclude his existing mandate beyond his 65th birthday, but if the mandate is renewed just before that birthday, he can see it through to its end. Which is what has happened.

Under a new decree dated March 31st 2016, just three months before Bayle reaches the legal age limit, he acquires the legal right to carry out a full new mandate of five years instead of three years, because the new mandate is considered to be his first and not his sixth. This decree is also signed by François Hollande. It means Bayle will have been able to stay in the same job for a total of nearly 20 years.

Mediapart asked the Minister for Culture and Communication, Audrey Azoulay, to comment on the cases detailed above.

In the case of Guy Cogeval, the ministry replied that he had “announced he would leave in March 2017, a year after being renewed in March 2016, “and the ministry had made the situation public in a press release in full agreement with Cogeval.

In the case of Laurent Bayle, the ministry reiterated, detailing every step of the process, that the Cabinet had approved the decree merging the Cité de la Musique and the Philharmonie de Paris, which had allowed its existing director (Bayle) to complete his mandate beyond his 65th birthday, and also allowed him to be appointed to a first mandate as director of the new entity.

“In line with the statutes, this appointment was made following approval by the Mayor of Paris. The presence of Laurent Bayle at the head of the establishment for this first director's mandate is an indication of the success and completion of the Philharmonie de Paris for all the partners,” the ministry said.  “Laurent Bayle played a considerable role in the implementation of the project and the success of its launch, both through his intimate knowledge of the place and its teams, and through the quality of the relationships he has with the greatest musicians and international symphony orchestras.”

Concerning the appointment of the stepdaughter of the Elysée Palace general secretary to the Musée du Quai Branly, the ministry said it had not intervened in the appointment.


The French version of this article can be found here.


English version by Sue Landau and Michael Streeter

(Editing by Graham Tearse)

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