It’s better (and worse) than you think: seeing politics from every side with Catherine Pégard

Madame Catherine Pégard has been on both sides of the French political stage, as both player and spectator, and she has some good news for us. “The best part of politics is better than you can imagine.” The next moment, though, she will quickly add, “but the bad part of politics is probably worse than you can imagine.”

You might come to this double-sided conclusion, too, if you had lived as many lives as Pégard. She has played the parts of the journalist, as the editor-in-chief of Le Point; the liaison between the journalist and the public figure, as the spokesperson for President Nicolas Sarkozy; and now, the figure that the journalist pursues. Madame Pégard is the President of the Château de Versailles. Everyone answers to her—curators, restorers, gardeners, fountaineers, security guards—and everyone depends on her, for finding resources, for communicating among staff, for maintaining the quality of the museums. She has a big job.

“President is president,” she says. “You have everything to do.” And when Pégard says “everything,” she is not exaggerating. By definition, she is head of a cultural institution; but Versailles is heavy with history, both a place to administrate and an idea to maintain. Pégard’s job description includes “keeping Versailles alive” and maintaining its role as the “history book of France.”

Pégard, luckily, has a way of making impossible jobs seem like simple tasks, a skill she traces back to her days as a journalist. France might be a big story for Versailles to tell, but she has told plenty of stories before.

“You have to tell what you know, and that’s it.” You might feel almost silly for asking such a strong woman and leader how she navigates complicated situations. She will tell you her approach with a blunt confidence that feels colored by years of experience and lessons learned.

“If you want to know somebody, you must go meet them,” she says of her time as a journalist. “You must know what you know, you must know what you are, you must know what they are.”

“Catherine made her reputation as being there–on the ground, over and over, year after year,” says Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of The New York Times. “You build a reputation where you are respected, not only because of who you are as a person, but what you know.”

On the eve of the French presidential election, one might turn to people like Pégard for her take on what’s happening now, and what will happen next. Having led what she calls her “three lives,” she has a broader perspective than the people on the receiving end of media. After her experiences, she explains, “everything is more important. Everything is more colored.”

Pégard too, though, seems as uncertain about the upcoming election as everyone else. While she has more insight than most from her many political experiences, she cannot look to the past to answer who will win, or what will happen next.

“It’s very difficult, because I think we have never seen this before in France. I can’t believe it,” she said, faltering just a bit.

The most people can do, she explains, is to inform themselves and participate. “If I were a journalist,” she explains, “I’d try to follow the contestants, and try to explain what they do. Which is just what we can do.”

Although Madame Pégard cannot give an answer to the many questions about France’s political future, she is clear about the way the French should look for one. “We need to talk more about the past, not only the present,” says the President of France’s history book. “Because you are not the man you are at the moment. You are the man you were before.”

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