An Interview with Alexandre Gady, President of the S.P.P.E.F.

Last November, we interviewed Alexandre Gady after his appointment as President of the Société pour la protection des paysages et de l’esthétique de la France (see article in French).
Almost a year later, we wanted to take stock of what is happening at this association which has already initiated several legal procedures, in fact, often in accordance with the battles fought here at The Art Tribune which, as you know, is committed to a militant journalistic pursuit for the defense of heritage and museums.
An association such as this one, acknowledged as being "d’utilité publique" cannot function without a large number of members and we would like to help in making it better known to the public. This interview, available on our site for the first time, was filmed for our readers. We also provide an abridged transcription for those who do not have the time or the wish to watch the entire session (it lasts 13’ 34").

Interview d’Alexandre Gady par latribunedelart

Written transcription (slightly abridged) :

What is the S.P.P.E.F.?

It is the oldest existing association for the protection of French heritage because it was created the day after the law for associations was voted in. It included, around Sully-Prudhomme, people who were above all concerned about the brutal damage to landscape. Its second president, Charles Beauquier, a deputy from the Doubs region, would lend his name in 1906 to the first law protecting landscape in France. This law is the ancestor of the current law of 1930 which is the legislative text protecting our sites today.

Can you tell us what you do ?

Over the course of its long history, almost 112 years, the S.P.P.E.F. has employed several arms. The first is simply mobilizing people. Private citizens want to express a point of view which is not necessarily that of the government. Then, the association has also worked closely with public authorities. This is important to us, so this is an institution which also carries a certain institutional weight. The idea was to be as effective as possible with Ministry cabinets or elected officials. We also use information as a means of action, notably via the journal Sites et Monuments which provides extensive information concerning various aspects of French heritage.
The S.P.P.E.F. also decided very early on, in a very brave move as it is not always easy as you know, to resort to legal action. Other initiatives are not always enough to achieve what we feel is best for the public good and just simple common sense. So we had to, back in the 60’s and 70’s file lawsuits which increased in the 80’s and 90’s, notably thanks to an extraordinary lawyer, Olivier Chalot, a very close friend, who unfortunately died very young and who managed to achieve miracles. I was determined to restart these various legal actions when I was elected president a year ago, to show public authorities that we are not simply a very likeable group of amateurs who get together now and then to talk about heritage.

What legal procedures are currently underway ?

There are about ten cases currently underway. These fall under administrative procedures. We have been doing this for quite some time. These procedures are very long and, true, are expensive, but we have an excellent lawyer and these cases are a little bit like our "nuclear arm". We of course do not attack everything and anything. We pick the most critical battles, those which are both just and representative. A lawsuit, reflects both an inherent logic, to save something, but also an exterior or pedagogical purpose, in the eyes of elected officials, developers...
I might mention the example of a procedure against the declaration of public utility for the destruction of the rue des Carmes requested by the current mayor of Orléans. When the French Ministry of Culture in the preceding government was not able to stand up against the mayor, we had to decide, though with far reaching consequences for us to attack the declaration of public utility decided by the Prefect to destroy the houses from the Middle Ages, the 16th and 17th centuries on the rue des Carmes.
Then the elections took place and the new minister took a stand which we found to be fair but which should have happened much earlier, that is to announce the protection of this valuable portion of the rue des Carmes. The problem is that the declaration of public utility, a prerequisite for the destruction is still valid. In fact, after the Minister’s statement I received the text defending the opposing party. The importance of such a procedure, though we might say it’s useless, that the Minister has done her job, is that it allows us to stay in the game and thus guarantee there are no accidents.
In the same way, we have a highly publicized case in progress against the extension of the Roland-Garros stadium, or rather stadiums. We presented, along with another association of public utility, Les Vieilles Maisons Françaises and its president Philippe Toussaint, a counter-proposal to the Roland-Garros project which claims to be the only possible solution, and in passing seals the destruction of the Serres d’Auteuil extending its grounds onto a uniquely remarkable site, in fact protected as a historical monument. This counter-proposal was welcomed by the press but swept away by our opponents. Clearly, we will be filing a lawsuit and will be attacking, in the next few days the P.L.U. of Paris which is authorizing the future construction in the Bois de Boulogne, may I remind you, a listed site since a decree issued in 1957. Since then, it has been continuously eaten away and Roland-Garros is not the least greedy of the list. So there you have one of our biggest cases today with, as often happens, other local associations. We are a national association acknowledged as being of public utility but I like to act alongside local associations and private citizens because it shows that many share the same interest and most of all - something which needs to be avoided, that is using threats or defending private interests. I am not here for personal victory, but am ready to field any blows that come our way...I defend what I feel is for the public good and, as is in fact the case, I am only ensuring the laws voted by the parliament which are poorly applied by the government and which if applied would mean that I could resign from this association and that it would simply disappear. This is normal, we live in a democracy, the State cannot do everything and so, it needs its citizens who are there to help it make the right decisions and avoid the bad ones.

How do you fund your activities ?

Our funding comes only from membership fees - we have several thousand members - who, along with the sale of newsletters, are our greatest resource. We also receive donations or bequests. We have two subsidies, one from the French Ministry of Ecology, the other from the Ministry of Culture, but these are used to award prizes so they simply pass through our association and do not contribute to its operations. We are independent in the literal and noble sense of the term, with great financial instability. Some choices will have to be made. We have a permanent staff but obviously a great number of volunteers. If I might make an appeal, which is not very original and right now not very opportune, I would say that anyone interested in cultural heritage, and there are many out there, all those who do not wish to witness the disappearance of a certain number of monuments or landscapes around them which constitute their "visual or mental reference points", should act. They can either join, it does not cost much and contributes to increasing our force, our numbers, or they can make a donation, even a modest one ; I’ve posted an online system for micro-donations. You can donate one euro, two euros, five euros for a specific cause. Many of the donations coming in at the moment are for the Bois de Boulogne. Clearly, people are absolutely incensed at the fact that the Fédération française de tennis is planning to settle in there as if it were the most natural thing in the world...

Are these donations tax deductible ?

Since our association is acknowledged as being of public utility, donors can deduct 66% from their taxes, up to 20 % maximum of course of their taxable income.

What about your new internet website ?

The S.P.P.E.F.’s new website, is a very long story since we were traditionally attached to paper, a cultural problem. I argued for a change to internet. In any case, our site will open in ten days [1]. It will present our activities, the causes we find just, information for our members with space available to them, legal information...In short, a toolbox and a sounding board for all those battles we wish to fight so that this country will remain, as they say, the most beautiful country in the world - I’m not sure this is true every day. But we must try to keep the France we love. In the association’s title, there is the word "esthétique", we are not ashamed to say that we defend beauty. Today, people laugh at this idea, no one talks about beauty any more, except that, in the end, you always hear "I like it" or "I don’t like it", so we’ve taken a stand and we defend what we feel is beautiful and we try to transmit it to those who come after us.

Interviewed by Didier Rykner

Société pour la protection et l’esthétique de la France, 39 avenue de la Motte-Picquet. Tel : 01 47 05 37 71.

Version française

La Tribune de l’Art, samedi 15 septembre 2012


[1] We will point out the posting of this new website in The Art Tribune’s weekly letter (in French).

imprimer Print this article

Previous article in Heritage : Saint-Saturnin : the Priest, the Minister’s Mother and the High Altar

Next article in Heritage : The Troglodyte Church of Haute-Isle and its 17th century Furnishings