The costly cowboy boots, the sumo wrestler statuette, and the presidential museum with its own motorway exit (but few visitors)

Folie de grandeur or simply a way of finding room for all those unwanted presents? John Lichfield reports from the Chirac museum in Sarran, south-west France
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The Independent Online

There can be few museums in the world whose range of exhibits includes a stuffed, 5ft-long, prehistoric fish and a pair of unworn, extremely expensive, blue cowboy-boots. In the village of Sarran - with fewer than 300 inhabitants - in south-west France, there is a spacious, modern museum, the largest building in the village, which contains these objects and more. Much, much more.

The museum possesses, for instance, a large porcelain model of a sumo wrestler standing on one foot; and a South African chess set, with miniature Nelson Mandelas representing the black and white kings and Desmond Tutu playing all four bishops. The museum has a Saudi sculpture of a falcon on a perch, of inestimable value and stunning vulgarity, made from gold, quartz, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and 1,210 diamonds. It also owns two baseball hats and a deflated rugby ball.

What are all these things doing in a village off the normal tourist beat, far from any large city? The answer lies with the village's most celebrated, occasional resident: Jacques Chirac. The museum - Le Musée du Président Jacques Chirac - was opened four years ago at the cost of €4m (£3m), kindly paid by French, local and European taxpayers.

The idea was to celebrate M. Chirac's presidency, on the model of the "presidential libraries" in the United States, and provide a good home for the scores of official and private presents (up to 150 a month) given to the French head of state.

Sarran, in Corrèze was chosen, not at the insistence of M. Chirac, but at the insistence of Bernadette Chirac, the local councillor and deputy mayor of the village. The First Lady of France spends more time at the Chiracs' Château de Bity, close to Sarran than the President does.

Although the local connection is through M. Chirac's paternal grandparents, who were village schoolteachers in Corrèze, it is Bernadette, born into a Parisian aristocratic family, who maintains the President's roots in La France Profonde. Bernadette Chirac decided Jacques must have an instant museum to match the one created in north west Burgundy for François Mitterrand, near the end of his second presidential term. She insisted it must be in Sarran.

Local legend has it that Bernadette shifted the exit from the brand new A89 autoroute several kilometres from the sizable town of Egletons to give easy access to the Chirac museum (and chateau). To no avail. The museum, after a promising start, has proved a dud. It attracted 67,000 people in its first full year; 48,000 in 2002; and 36,000 (half its target) in 2003.

No matter. The conseil general (county council) for the département of Corrèze has decided to build an extension, doubling the museum's size, at a cost of €7m, paid mostly, again, by the French state and local councils, with help from the EU.

The presidential "libraries" in the home towns of US presidents are built through private donations. M. Mitterrand's personal monument, and now M. Chirac's, have been funded entirely from taxes, with no protest from political opposition or press (other than one short story in the satirical newspaper, Le Canard Enchainé). Officials at the Corrèze council claim the museum is a "great success". The President has handed over all his presents, official and private, past and future, to the département. Surely, they say, it is better that the presents should be on public display, providing a tourist attraction, rather than bundled up in an attic in Paris.

The original structure - parallel buildings with pointed roofs, vaguely resembling a battery-chicken farm - is stuffed to bursting with the gifts accumulated by Jacques Chirac in his first term. More space is needed, the council says, to cope with the presents which are showering on the Elysée Palace in his second term, now approaching its half-way point.

In the museum's catalogue, Jean-Pierre Dupont, Chirac-supporter, president of the Corrèze council and local member of the National Assembly, says: "These objects, incredibly diverse, each with its place in history, bear witness to the global role played by France at the beginning of the 21st century. They are a visible part of the permanent dialogue between the representatives of nations." Hmm.

There are, admittedly, stunningly beautiful objects in the permanent display: a Hungarian vase decorated with butterflies and birds; a copper-bordered, porcelain bowl made by the Welsh sculptor Peter Wills, given to President Chirac by Tony Blair in 1998 (before they started throwing crockery at each other). A noble attempt has been made to try to make sense of the 150 objects chosen for the main room, arranged by themes and by continents. There is a mini-collection of sumo memorabilia because President Chirac is a great fan of sumo wrestling, which he watches on tapes sent from Japan.

The cowboy boots were given to M. Chirac by President Bill Clinton at the G8 summit in Denver, Colorado, in 1997. The South African chess set is a present from President Thabo Mbeki. The stuffed fish, a coelacanth, once thought extinct, was a present from the Comores islands in the Indian Ocean, where they have swum for hundreds of thousands of years.

But the true, though malicious, delight of a visit to the Jacques Chirac museum is the once-daily, 20-minute peek at the "visitable reserve": an Aladdin's cave of tosh, some of it extraordinarily expensive tosh.

The guide, a young woman in her early 20s wearing business-like spectacles, seems to be on automatic pilot. There is no trace of humour. She tells the dozen visitors (all that have turned up at the museum that afternoon) that the "reserve" is kept permanently at a temperature of 18 to 20 degrees centigrade. No natural light is allowed to penetrate to fade, or fox, the 3,000 objects piled up here.

We are led along a double corridor of large fish tanks, stuffed with cadeaux, seemingly at random. Other objects are heaped above and below. The effect is like the old Generation Game conveyor belt. You have just 20 minutes in semi-darkness to memorise or scribble down the objects on view.

Here goes. There were the ceremonial keys to a score of cities, from Osaka to Asuncion; a plastic football in the red and yellow colours of the Racing Club de Lens; a fire department of New York baseball hat; a police department of New York baseball hat (gifts from Rudolf Giuliani); a large plastic cow (prime Holstein breed); a Swiss cow bell with Jacques Chirac's name on it. (Usually the bell carries the cow's name; this is a Swiss joke, at which M. Chirac laughed at heartily, so the guide says.)

There was also a French air force pilot's helmet; an elaborate oasis scene in gold plate and diamonds (a gift from Qatar); assorted gold-plated models of Arab forts (gifts from assorted Gulf states); various daggers, scimitars and swords, made of gold and encrusted with diamonds and rubies (gifts from the same and other Gulf states); a cowboy hat with tassels; a plastic model of a TGV, presented by the head of the French railways and decorated, with what look like designer graffitti, by the fashion designer, Christian Lacroix.

There was also a rugby ball (seriously deflated) signed by all the members of the France team which won the Grand Slam in 1997; an Yves Saint Laurent football (a gift from David Beckham maybe?); and a decorated milk churn from the Haute Savoie.

Didn't Jacques do well? As we leave, I exchange looks with a woman in late middle age. She rolls her eyes. If this is the "visitable" reserve, imagine what must be in the unvisitable reserve. To recall the words of the leader of the Corrèze council, the gifts are the "visible part of the permanent dialogue between the representatives of nations". If so, why do the representatives of nations bother?

Presumably, similar junk is constantly being exchanged between all heads of state and government. No one dares to call a halt, without risking a diplomatic affront. Why do they not choose presents which the country or head of state could really cherish or use?

Instead of giving President Chirac yet another gold-plated desert fortress, encrusted with rubies, why does Bahrain not make a small contribution to wiping out the French national debt? Or - Generation Game-like - an all-expenses-paid holiday for two in the Gulf?

The Chirac museum is far from modest in size and has been conceived with at least one extension in mind. The building stands within large grounds, running down to a series of terraced ponds, with the beautiful, wooded hills of Corrèze in the background, rolling in ridge after ridge towards the Dordogne.

There is plenty of room for the forthcoming, "second term" extension and - M. Chirac's would-be young rivals, such as Nicolas Sarkozy, please note - ample space for a "third-term" annexe, if necessary.

Opinion in Paris differs on whether M. Chirac plans to stand again in 2007 (when he will be 74). One senior official said he has detected signs that the Chiracs were already thinking of what the President's historic and political legacy to France might be, apart from the museum. The official pointed to last month's unusually emotive call to the nation to take a stand against racism. This, he said, was the speech of a man who knew that he had only a couple of years left to "define" what his career was all about.

After almost 40 years in the business, it is surprisingly difficult to say what M. Chirac's career was all about. Other political observers say the Chiracs, husband and wife, have no intention of retiring just yet to the Château de Bity (where, it is rumoured, that the very urban Jacques, for all his professed love of Corrèze and rural values, becomes mightily bored).

Everything possible is being done to keep open the possibility that Chirac can run again in 2007. Either way, the Sarran museum, eclectic, exasperating and vacuous as it is, stands as a perfect memorial for a political career mostly built on zig-zags, of contradictory policies espoused, then jettisoned into an non-visitable reserve.

The editor of le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani, once summed up President Chirac's striving and conniving in politics with the words: "Tout ça pour ça?". (All that for that?) Pierre Charpy, a journalist and sometime, pro-Chirac polemicist, said of his favourite, in a moment of exasperation: "He has the capacity to cover the length of the pitch at high speed. The only problem is that he forgets the ball." M. Chirac is probably the last (one hopes) of a generation of vainglorious French politicians, whose motives were mostly selfish, a pursuit of power and position for their own sake. The emerging generation of French leaders, such as M. Sarkozy, love him or loathe him, offers a more can-do, results-based approach.

When President Chirac finally does retire, his monument-museum in Sarran will convey a perverse, but oddly appropriate, political epitaph. Like Shelley's King Ozymandias boasting of his glories on a ruined temple in the desert, the museum of political bric-a-brac seems to proclaim: "Look on my works, ye mighty and despair."