Meeting the Queen was very special for me

CONNEXION INTERVIEW: Historian, TV presenter and organiser of France’s Heritage Lottery Stéphane Bern talks to Brian McCulloch

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The new lottery to support French heritage projects was inspired by the UK’s National Trust, says its organiser and public face Stéphane Bern.

Last year the heritage lottery raised €21million directly, plus another €22million after the government contributed its tax take on state lotteries.

Another €5million was contributed by company and individual sponsors.

Mr Bern told Connexion: “I have always admired the work done by the National Trust in the UK.

“In France it is unlikely that we will be able to set up a similar trust to own buildings like the National Trust.

“But we have many monuments and buildings which are owned by communes, departments and regions, as well as individuals, and the public support for these is invaluable.”

This year, the main heritage draw will be on the Fête Nationale, July 14, and a scratchcard game, with tickets at €3 and €15, will run in September.

Each of France’s 18 metropolitan and overseas regions has a flagship project that will benefit from funding.

Mr Bern, 55, is one of France’s best-known television presenters. This year he has presented a series, La Fabuleuse Histoire, looking at the history of everyday life, covering home comforts through the ages, health, beauty and cosmetics.

President Macron asked him to run a mission to conserve and preserve France’s heritage, which led to the special heritage lottery.

He said he is gratified by the interest in France’s heritage, and grateful to have helped to stimulate it through programmes like Le Village préféré des Français, since 2012. Recent attacks on public monuments in Paris, but also in cities such as Bordeaux, by gilets jaunes protesters led some commentators to suggest that the love of heritage is seen as an elitist preoccupation in France, something Mr Bern rejects strongly.

“People who have a heart that loves other people also have a heart which loves our common heritage,” he said.

“And also, many of the gilets jaunes protesters are from small villages and towns in France where they see the value of preserving heritage.

“In many places, the main interest for outsiders are the old church and the chateau, and people know that. I have spoken to gilets jaunes protesters and they have all thanked me for the heritage work done in smaller places.”

Just like many readers of Connexion, Mr Bern has bought and restored an old building, in his case a former royal college near Chartres.

He said the biggest surprise of the project was that it never seems to end.

“You touch a few stones and that leads to needing to do some work on a window, and suddenly you have to go up, and you are in the roof’s woodwork,” he laughed.

“It is never-ending but I find it very rewarding. When you are up in the scaffolding there is a real sense of a link with the builders and people who have been before you.

“And it is good for the commune – at various times we have had around 100 people working here, and it brings visitors and life to the village.”

He said the work promoting France’s heritage was also slowly having an effect on urban planning regulations.

In many parts of France these have led to any work in the centre of villages being swamped with regulations, while making it easy to build “rabbit hutch” houses on the outskirts.

“I have spoken to the President about this but he feels that it is something which has to remain with the mayors and local authorities, rather than imposing from Paris,” he said.

“The mayors are starting to realise what they risk losing and there are now initiatives to help finance and keep the harmony of our old village centres.

“I am a strong admirer of Prince Charles and his call for harmonious architecture, and I hope this is spreading because our programme Le village préféré des Français, after eight years, is finding it hard to find places which keep a harmonious whole.

“The only consolation is that the ‘rabbit hutch’ buildings will not last long because they are so badly built.”

Much of Mr Bern’s early historical work was on Europe’s royal families and he still calls himself a monarchist, even though he does not think there will be another restoration in France.

“Europe’s monarchs are almost all republicans, and here in France we have a republic with a president who is almost a monarch,” he said.

“That way we can cut off their head every five years!”

Mr Bern was appointed an honorary MBE for services to UK/French cultural relations through his history work at a ceremony at the British Embassy in Paris in 2013, the first time such a ceremony had been held there. “It was a very special day for me,” he said. “The Queen was very charming, gracious and interested in what I had found out.”

The TV times of Stéphane Bern

Stephane Bern is the organiser of France’s first heritage lottery, raising funds for restoration projects.

The historian and journalist is a familiar face on French TV, presenting in recent weeks La Fabuleuse Histoire on France 2.

He is also working on the new run of the popular France 3 show Le Village préféré des Français, which he has presented since the first episode in 2012. Voting for a favourite among the 14 villages – one from each mainland region and one overseas – vying to win the title held by Cassel in Hauts-de-France closed in March. The winner will be revealed in June.

Bern has also co-hosted French TV’s live coverage of the annual Eurovision contest since 2015.