Telling the Story of Versailles

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

To run Versailles, you have to be a journalist. Or so believes Catherine Pégard, the current president of the Château de Versailles, who spent most of her career as a political reporter. Her road to Versailles was uncommon. “In France, we aren’t used to having different lives. But I’m very lucky. This is my third life,” said Pégard in an interview with Princeton University students on Thursday. But Pégard feels the same qualities are required in journalism and at Versailles. “You must be curious and inventive,” she said. “You must know what [Versailles] is, understand what it is, and then you must tell the story,” she said.

Pégard began her journalistic career at age twenty-three in 1977. In 1982, she started writing for the weekly political magazine Le Point, of which she became editor-in-chief in 1995. When right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy became president in 2007, he appointed her one of his advisors, she gave up journalism but kept its mindset. She saw herself as a “journalist for the President.” She observed politics closely, said exactly what she thought, and did not toe the party line. People criticized her for collaborating with politicians, but she insisted she remained independent. “I disagree with journalists who say, ‘I never have lunch with politicians because I don’t want to be influenced by them.’ That means you are weak. If you are strong enough, you can eat with anybody and think what you want,” she said.

When President Sarkozy nominated her to head Versailles in 2011, she brought this journalistic independence with her. Nominations to Versailles are usually political. Pégard’s was not. In 2016, Socialist President François Hollande took an uncommonly bipartisan stance to renew her contract. Entrusted with continuing to tell the story of Versailles, Pégard has sought to highlight how “Versailles is the root of everything in France.” The palace holds archives of political meetings, ceremonies, theater, painting, architecture, gardening, wars and revolutions. Still, history is not enough. In Pégard’s view, “you must think of what it was, but also what it is for the people of today. You can’t be in a dead museum.”

In Pégard’s journalistic mind, Versailles is a living thing. “Everything changes here depending on the light, depending on the season,” she said. The Hall of Mirrors is not her favorite place. “But if you are there at six o’clock in the afternoon when the light is pink, nothing else is like that,” she said. The Petit Trianon isn’t her favorite place, either. “But when you are alone in the theater of Marie Antoinette, you can imagine what she was when she was in the scene,” she said.

Just as Pégard has discovered beautiful moments at Versailles, she also humbles herself before the things she hasn’t yet discovered. She thinks she learned that from journalism. “I was not supposed to come here. When I arrived at Versailles, I didn’t know Versailles. I have everything to learn about it, and I am not finished,” she said. She probably never will be.

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