San Francisco -- U.S. PRESIDENTS leave hometown archival libraries to remember them by. But not the presidents of France -- no way! They leave big museums.
The one departing the office this spring after a new French election, Francois Mitterrand, will leave the biggest museum of them all -- Le Grand Louvre. In his two terms, he got this icon of French culture converted into the world's most extensive and user-friendly art museum.
Being that rare bird, a Socialist who won re-election, he's leaving not only the remade Louvre but seven other great works. They include a new opera house where the Bastille was, a world-class Arab Institute and finally a new (unfinished) national Library of France, 22 stories tall.
But the Louvre, with its glassy pyramid at the center, is his piece de resistance.
Francois I started the Louvre as an art hoard in the 16th century. The French revolutionaries engulfed it and turned it into a people's museum in 1793. And now Mr. Mitterrand has socialized it at the end of the 20th. Vive la France!
Mr. Mitterrand's is a hard museum act to follow. The Socialist candidate in the runoff election on Sunday, Lionel Jospin, might suggest he, too, deserves some credit for the Louvre.
But his Gaullist opponent, Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, conspicuously gave Mr. Mitterrand no help in augmenting the Louvre's tourist-attracting power.
He'll have to come up with a museum of his own.
In the voting on April 23, Mr. Chirac edged Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who had tried to thwart the Louvre expansion. Mr. Balladur was the finance minister in 1987 and refused to move the ministry from its wing of the Louvre to make way for more art. Mr. Mitterrand forced and cajoled Mr. Balladur out before proceeding with the plan and winning his second term as president.
Mr. Chirac, as mayor of Paris, only managed to say he was "not hostile" to the project and its architect.
The architect was an American. Not only that, he was "neither French, nor even really American," as a chauvinistic critic put it. He was I.M. Pei, architect of our National Gallery's East Wing in Washington, and a type most French don't recognize: Chinese American.
You may be one or the other, but not both.
Mr. Pei's great offense and coup as the Grand Louvre architect was a wholly new main entrance smack in the middle of the Cour Napoleon in the form of a glass and metal pyramid. It has worked beautifully to bring throngs underground into the labyrinthine Louvre, but it deeply offended Parisian sensibilities to begin with. Some called it a tomb of the dead (a la Egypt). Others called it Disneyland.
Mr. Mitterrand stuck by his architect, however, and ceremonially conferred the Napoleonic Legion d'Honneur on Mr. Pei within the pyramid being built. Then he went out and won re-election in 1988. Soon after that, Pierre Boulez conducted a concert for le tout Paris beside the shining pyramid. Everybody came, though it rained.
These seven years later, composer-conductor Boulez has just been named principal guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
My wife and I, being political tourists, plan to check out Paris again this June after the presidential election.
We'll see if Mitterrand's Grand Louvre with its seven-acre subterranean plaza is finally done as he leaves office. Twice we've gone there to see it finished and found more construction. Maybe this time Mr. Mitterrand will be sitting for a sculpture to be mounted in the Cour Napoleon near the pyramid. Last time we went, fresh sandstone statues of Rabelais and others were being hoisted up.
We'll also pay a visit to the two preceding presidents' big commemorative gestures -- the Georges Pompidou National Center of Art and Culture, a veritable oil refinery of an art museum, and the grandiose "City of Science and Techniques" left by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, featuring a perfectly spherical theater named the Geode. It fittingly challenges the Louvre's pyramid, and there's a rock concert hall nearby.
I may be compelled to change my tourist vote from Mr. Mitterrand to Mr. Giscard.
Stan Andersen wrote this for the San Francisco Examiner.