By Iris Samuels
If Versailles were the history book of France, the current chapter would tell the story of a strong woman. The palace’s current president, Catherine Pégard, has the soul of a journalist, the mind of a politician and a fierce pride in her French identity. Former editor of weekly French magazine Le Point, she now holds a position that some consider second to the minister of culture in France.
“Usually if you’re a journalist, you stay a journalist,” she said, explaining her “bizarre” professional trajectory. She joined Le Point in 1982 as a 28-year-old political journalist covering the French parliament.
The beginning of her career brought a serendipitous meeting with a young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy. Then mayor of the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Sarkozy would become the key to Pégard’s political path. “I followed him through his entire career,” Pégard said. When Sarkozy became president of France in 2007, he asked her to join him as his political advisor. “I always tried to tell him the truth,” Pégard said, explaining how she earned his trust.
Once Pégard left journalism, she knew she would not go back. “She became loyal to the government,” said Elaine Sciolino, former bureau chief for the New York Times in Paris. “She was always correct with us [journalists].”
But Pégard maintains that even after she left professional journalism, her journalistic skills remained useful. “When you are a journalist you have to tell what you know,” she explained. “I was a journalist for the president.”
In 2011, Sarkozy nominated her for the role of President of Versailles. It is often considered a political nomination, but when François Hollande, a socialist candidate, beat Sarkozy, he renewed Pégard’s appointment. “I’m very proud of that,” she said. It was proof that she is good at her job.
Now she lives in Versailles, and oversees more than 7.5 million annual visitors. “You need to be a journalist in order to be here,” she said, sitting in a conference room in the Grand Commun, an office building outside the main gates of the Château de Versailles. “You must tell a story.”
With the classic French grace and a thoughtful expression, Pégard seemed uncomfortable sharing details of her personal life, but was eager to share lessons from her professional life. Throughout her career, she encountered challenges as a woman in power. “But it’s easier now,” she said. “The most important things have been done,” she added, explaining that the French workforce is far more equal now than in the past. “There are more women everywhere.”
Victor Hugo once described Versailles as the binding to the history book of France. Pégard maintained that this link is still relevant. She is now overseeing the creation of exhibits that travel as far as Tokyo and New York. The history of Versailles still charms and intrigues crowds around the world.
Pégard herself still enjoys sitting alone in the theater of Marie Antoinette, or visiting the famous Hall of Mirrors during sunset, when the room takes on a lovely shade of pink. “You must always think about what it was, but also what it is today.”