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What the president's furniture says about France

April 15, 2022

What does the furniture of the Elysee Palace have to do with the French election? It represents France — and follows the style of the governing president.

A sleek modern black desk sits on a yellow carpet in a fancy gilded room whose chandelier is reflected in a mirror that is flanked by the EU and French flags
The style of furniture in the French presidential palace, like Emmanuel Macron's mondern desk, can say a lot about FranceImage: KAO Zhicheng/Présidence de la République

As French President Emmanuel Macron faces off against far-right challenger Marine Le Pen in the second round of the country's presidential election, the state-funded furnishing institution, Mobilier National, is also in high gear.

The election period is one of the busiest times for the institution, whose 365 employees supply around 100,000 pieces of furniture and carpets to France's public institutions, including the presidential Elysee Palace.

The courtyard of the Elysee Palace
The grand Elysee Palace, the residence and office of the French president, was built in 1722Image: Victor Joly/abaca/picture alliance

"Even if the French vote for the current president, Emmanuel Macron, as the surveys say, we are preparing for the storm of requests that will come," says Muriel Barbier, chief of the monitoring department of Mobilier National. "For one, Macron may want to change more pieces of furniture in the Elysee Palace, and also, with the formation of the government, new ministers may want to redecorate their rooms," she added.

The Mobilier National is an institution of the Elysee Palace and also reflects — at least in certain cases — the style of the governing president.

"When he first came to power in 2017, Macron got the Salle des Fetes in the Elysee Palace renovated," Barbier recalls. The carpet and the curtains of the hall, in which the president is traditionally sworn in, were in dark red and gold colors, making the room appear very dark. "The French designer Isabelle Stanislas had won the call for tenders at the time, proposing a light grey carpet with subdued, golden feathers and smooth curtains. We also lowered the chandeliers, which made the room appear brighter," she said.

Muriel Barbier reaches up to hold onto the plastic covering of a chair
Muriel Barbier sees first-hand how furniture in the Elysee Palace can reflect and project an image of France according to presidential wishesImage: Lisa Louis/DW

A 'radiant touch' at the entrance

Macron implemented many reforms in France after he was first elected, bringing fresh wind to the palace built in 1722.

The president, who was 39 years old at the time, got a new carpet made for the so-called Murat stairs. The staircase, built in a classic empire style, had until then been decorated in dark red with floral patterns. "The contemporary artist Nathalie Junod Ponsard designed a carpet that goes from a dark blue to a dark red — only white is missing for the national colors," Barbier explains. "That gives the whole thing a radiant touch and it goes very well with the white marble and the golden palm leaves at the landing of the stairs at the palace entrance."

An elegant stairway with gold-decorated bainsters and carpeted stairs that change from blue to purple to red
This stairway in the Elysee Palace features a striking graduated color capretImage: Thibaut Chapotot

Macron's desk has possibly attracted the most attention. The "K" model by French designer Thierry Lemaire was discovered by Macron's wife, Brigitte, and customized for Macron's office, the Salon Dore (Golden Salon). It is made of dark wenge wood and has a desk mat made of leather and a drawer made of polished copper.

Macron sits at a long, dark desk and writes with pen
Macron's desk was made by designer Thierry LemaireImage: Soazig de la Moissonniere/Présidence de la République

Its modern design stands in stark contrast to the desk by 18th-century furniture-maker Charles Cressent in the Louis XV or Rococo style, made of purpleheart wood and decorative bronze strips, on which almost all of France's presidents have read and signed their documents.

"I was very proud when the Macrons chose my furniture — that is a real privilege," Thierry Lemaire told DW. "Madame Macron liked the fact that the desk was not only aesthetically pleasing but also practical with many drawers."

Macron sits with his hands clasper at an ornate wood and gold-trimmed desk
For press events, Macron sometimes sits at a more elaborate desk used by former presidentsImage: Yoan Valat/abaca/picture alliance

Preserving France's 'savoir faire'

The designer delivered a dozen pieces of his furniture to the Elysee — at a special price, as he says. "When you have this honor you must reduce the price sometimes — ultimately it is for the state."

Other pieces by Lemaire include the small, round "Hellmet" tables made of 40 kilos (88 pounds) of bronze and the deep blue "Garment" sofa, with bronze trimmings on the sides. "I conceived that for the American market seven or eight years ago — it really has modern shapes," Lemaire says, adding, "I think it is important that such contemporary pieces have a place in the Elysee, to represent the France of today."

The institution for this kind of representation has existed since 1604, and it took on the name Mobilier National in 1870: "King Henry IV wanted to compete against carpet imports from the Netherlands and Flanders. That is why he founded the tapestry company, Manufacture des Gobelins," Barbier explains. "That was a form of protectionism."

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King because of his egocentric nature, also wanted to show through his furniture that he was more powerful and stronger than other kings of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The motto of Mobilier National is now to preserve the French "savoir-faire" — the idea of French sophistication. "Through our activities, we promote modern design and are constantly in touch with contemporary artists. Our institution has ateliers for steel constructions, carpentry and woodwork. It is important that France ensures these artistic skills are not lost," Barbier says.

Classical styles preferred

Only a few presidents have brought modern design into the palace since 1958, when France's Fifth Republic — this refers to the country's current system of government — was formed. Most preferred a classical style. Even recent presidents like socialist Francois Hollande and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy did not really renovate anything in the Elysee.

One exception was Georges Pompidou, who was president from 1969 to 1974, towards the end of the three decades of rapid economic growth known as the "Les Trente Glorieuses." 

"Pompidou and his wife Claude were great lovers of contemporary art — they were in touch with modern designers from Paris, but also other countries," Barbier says. "That can definitely be accounted to the fact that it was the post '68 period, the flower power movement."

Thus, a tulip-shaped armchair made of aluminum and covered in leather found a place at the Elysee. The piece was designed by Pierre Paulin, who was inspired by Scandinavian and Japanese concepts.

A table with golden ornaments.
Following Pompidou, Valery Giscard d'Estaing (president from 1974-81) returned to a more classic styleImage: Mobilier National

The socialist President Francois Mitterrand, in power from 1981 to1995, pursued the modernization of the seat of the French government's furnishings. He also added furniture designed by Paulin, as well as a futuristic aluminum armchair covered with pale yellow leather by the Parisian industrial designer Philippe Starck.

beige armchair in modernist style.
An armchair designed by Pierre PaulinImage: Isabelle Bideau/Mobilier National

"It was the 1980s in all its glory at the time — the Elysee Palace looked like something out of a sci-fi movie," Barbier says.

This style also fitted Mitterrand's progressive social policies. For example, he abolished the death penalty and gave additional rights to gays and lesbians and immigrants who had entered the country illegally.

The Elysee Palace still houses many more classically styled furnishings, but the current president and Mobilier National are open to new trends.

The latter organization, which used to be protectionist, is now much more cosmopolitan, Barbier explains: "After all, we are part of Europe and are constantly in contact with international artists or similar institutions such as the Royal Collection in Great Britain, which furnishes the royal family's Buckingham Palace, among other things."

Designer Lemaire is also hoping for international contacts. "So far we haven't had any inquiries from governments in other countries, but that would be attractive — and our furniture in the Elysée Palace is certainly good advertising," he says.

This article was originally written in German.

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