Mr Vandal, do you accept the protection of the monument you are about to destroy?

All the versions of this article: English , français
Saint Joseph’s Chapel in Lille being demolished
The owner was, of course, opposed to both registration and classification.
To be fair, so was the Ministry of Culture!
Photo: Étienne Poncelet
See the image in its page

The French system for protecting historic monuments, which used to be one of the best in the world, is severely seized up. In addition to the legislative regressions we have witnessed in recent years (in particular the reduction in the power of Architectes des bâtiments de France - see articles), the lack of resources at the Ministry of Culture, combined with its political weakness and inability to fight for heritage are leading to intolerable situations that are even often contrary to heritage laws....

Thus, for example, registration [1] as a historic monument, already a very inadequate form of protection, is now only practised if the owner gives a favourable opinion. However, it is precisely this opinion that is not required, unlike classification, which can be achieved against the owner’s agreement only by automatic classification [2], which involves a cumbersome procedure and a decree from the Conseil d’État.

However, when a historic monument is under threat because its owner wants to alter or even demolish it, registration is a tool available to the Ministry of Culture that enables it to prevent the destruction in the first instance. Waiting for a favourable opinion from the vandal who wants to vandalise is a bit like politely asking a burglar not to visit your vulnerable flat while you’re on holiday.

You might think we’re exaggerating. So here’s the Ministry of Culture’s response to our question on the subject:

"Contrary to classification as a historic monument, the Heritage laws don’t require the owner’s agreement to register a building as a historic monument. In the past, many buildings were registered as historic monuments without the owners’ agreement, but the regional prefects, who are responsible for signing the registration orders and notifying the owners, have become more cautious. Without the owner’s agreement, the risk of an appeal to the administrative courts is high. What’s more, if a historic monument is registered against the owner’s wishes, the conditions for guaranteeing the monument’s long-term survival and conservation in accordance with the rules of the trade are never the best. This is why the DRACs (Regional Directorates for Cultural Affairs) are now involved in a process of seeking the owner’s support in order to make him understand the meaning and interest of protection, which involves both financial support from the Ministry for restoration work and advice from the Regional Conservations of Historic Monuments and the Departmental Architecture and Heritage Units through the exercise of scientific and technical control (CST). If, in exceptional cases, the conservation of a heritage site that merits protection as a historic monument is at stake, the State can either register it as a historic monument - with or without the owner’s agreement - or initiate a classification order [3]".

So let’s analyse his response point by point.

First of all, the Ministry admits that you don’t need the owner’s agreement to register a historic monument, but that practice is now different. And it’s fine with that.

It goes on to confirm what we have been denouncing all along: the Ministry of Culture or the DRACs are increasingly there for ornamental purposes. The real power, the real Ministers of Culture (a different one for each region) are the prefects!

And these prefects are "more cautious" because they are afraid that a decision to register a building as a historic monument, taken against the owner’s advice, could be appealed to the administrative court. What is a normal act provided for by law - the registration of a historic monument - becomes a subject of fear for the prefects. But what is the criterion for registering a historic monument? That it "is of sufficient historical or artistic interest to make its preservation desirable". But could not a well-constructed application by a curator of historic monuments withstand an appeal to the administrative court? By this yardstick, prefects can no longer make any decisions, because all are subject to appeal. Since when has the administration decided to give up enforcing the law on the pretext that an appeal would be possible? What we have here is a complete effacement of the Ministry of Culture in the face of prefects who often have no desire to protect heritage.

The Ministry’s other argument is equally laughable, and just as indicative of its inability to enforce the law: registering a monument without the agreement of its owner would "never offer the best conditions to guarantee the monument’s long-term survival and conservation"! So if a monument is under threat, it would probably be better for it to be destroyed rather than protected against its owner’s wishes? Let’s not ask an owner to respect the obligations of a registered monument (whose restoration is theoretically subject to the scientific and technical control of the DRAC), because in any case he will sit on it and nothing can be done!

It’s perfectly normal to approach an owner to discuss the idea of registering a monument and to try to get him to support the idea. But if it proves necessary and/or urgent to prevent a heritage disaster, the Ministry must act without delay and without weakness, because it is not only the law, it is also its duty. And in cases where a monument is under imminent threat, approaching the owner to try and convince him or her may, on the contrary, be highly counterproductive. In many communes, a demolition permit is not required (another heritage aberration!): the owner can therefore decide to demolish the monument before it is registered, and will do so all the more quickly if he knows that it could be. In this case, not only is the Ministry guilty of failing to protect the monument, it is even complicit in its destruction.

Let’s go a step further: in an emergency, a classification order ("instance de classement") should be issued, a decision that can be taken immediately and that suspends all work for a year, during which time the monument in question benefits from the effects of the classification. This leaves time to try and convince the owner, and then either register the monument - with or without the owner’s agreement - or even classify it automatically. But it’s easy to imagine that the prefects and the Ministry of Culture, terrified by the possibility of an appeal, are even less inclined to carry out classification orders and automatic classifications.

As for the last sentence, which suggests that "exceptionally" the State would remain "in a position either to register as a historic monument - without or against the owner’s agreement - or to initiate classification proceedings", it is clear to everyone that this almost never happens.

This is how heritage protection works in France: you have to ask vandals nicely not to vandalise. The Ministry of Culture is a bit like Clement VII kindly asking the mercenaries of the Constable of Bourbon to spare the city of Rome...

Didier Rykner


[1There are two levels of protection for historic monuments in France. The first, which is the least restrictive and is decided at regional level, is registration ("inscription" in French). The second, stronger level is classification ("classement" in French).

[2"Classement d’office" in French.

[3An "instance de classement" which allows a monument to benefit from the effects of classification for one year, against the advice of its owner.


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