Mr Prefect of the Aisne,

Dear Jacques Krabal, dear Marc Delatte,

Mr Mayor,

Ladies and gentlemen elected,

Mr President of the National Monuments Centre,

Mr Director General of Heritage and Architecture,

Mr President of the University of Picardy,

Mr Regional Director of Cultural Affairs of Hauts-de-France,

Dear Director of Territory of the La Poste Group,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you today, in front of this castle of Villers-Cotterêts with such a long history and which is reborn before our eyes.

The Château de Villers-Cotterêts, a popular residence of the Kings, bordered by the lush Retz forest, has experienced difficult periods, marked by successive changes in use, as well as significant destruction during the two world conflicts.

Let us not be afraid to acknowledge it: the abandonment of which it was the subject, on the part of the State, constituted a real patrimonial scandal. This is what the President of the Republic wanted to put an end to, by deciding on the complete restoration of this jewel. The long-awaited revival of the castle of Villers-Cotterêts has come.

Attention: it is not only a question of restoring an architecture, to restore their splendour to old stones. The President of the Republic wished to give substance in this exceptional place to one of the greatest cultural ambitions of his quinquennium: to create the Cité internationale de la langue française. For the first time, perhaps in the long history of presidential “great works”, the choice was made to favour a place outside the capital, and far from the big cities, in a rural territory. This seems to me to be a particularly strong and eloquent gesture. There can be no “centre” or “periphery” in culture. All cities and regions of our country have an equal right to it.

It is true that, when it came to promoting the French language, the languages of France and the Francophonie, the Château de Villers-Cotterêts was a must.

In the chapel of this castle, in 1539, François I signed the famous edict of Villers-Cotterêts, establishing French as the administrative language of the kingdom. In doing so, as the President of the Republic pointed out, “Francis I opened the door to a truly national language, shared, understood by all.” It “embodied the ambition of the French language to build a bridge between classes and conditions”. 

As a starting point for the linguistic homogenization of the whole of France, the Château de Villers-Cotterêts will continue to promote French, not only in our country, but also throughout the world.

A few months away from the installation of the Cité internationale de la langue française, my visit is an opportunity to mark a milestone in the progress of this prodigious project, which has mobilized financial and human resources unique in the history of our country.

I would like, dear Philippe Belaval, to greet, under your leadership, the exceptional mobilization of the National Monuments Centre, which allows us to rediscover some of the most beautiful treasures of this castle. I would particularly like to highlight the commitment of Valérie Senghor, Deputy Director General of the CMN and Project Leader of the Cité internationale de la langue française. As far as the work itself is concerned, I don’t think anything would have been possible without Delphine Christophe, Director of Conservation of Monuments and Collections, who oversees the project management of all the major CMN projects. She is everywhere, (I remember my visit with her from the Hotel de la Marine!) and everything she touches turns into gold. And I do not forget the essential role played on a daily basis by Xavier Bailly, the administrator of the castle.

Finally, I must thank the Directorate-General for Heritage and Architecture, dear Jean-François Hébert, who has accompanied this complex issue over the long term and has been able to give, at the right time, the decisive impetus.

The work that has been done since October 2020, when the work began, is absolutely colossal. It is hard to imagine the state of disrepair in which the monument stood just over two years ago.

At the time, the royal home was partially covered with corrugated metal as a roof… It was necessary to clean, to restore the facades and the roofs, to carry out many structural recoveries. With sometimes, as in all projects of this magnitude, unpleasant surprises…

In May 2023, just over a year from now, this massive operation, which will have represented an investment of €185 million, will be completed:

  • the restoration and set-up of the Royal Logis will be completed at the end of 2022;
  • the canopy in the courtyard of the Jeu de Paume will also be built before 2023.

The Cité de la francophonie, which will take place in these spaces, will offer 1200 m2 of permanent exhibition on the French language and the Francophonie, and 400m2 of temporary exhibitions. It will also include a 250-seat auditorium, as well as twelve residency workshops for artists, researchers and entrepreneurs.

Finally, in the first quarter of 2023, the restoration of the wings of the Uffizi courtyard, as well as that of the Dryer and Kitchens will follow.

The party of restoration adopted consists in preserving the trace of the different periods of occupation, while favoring the original Renaissance elements, in the south wing of the Royal Logis, as well as the contributions of the seventeenth and especially of the eighteenth century. On the inside, the remarkable chapel, the King’s staircase and the Queen’s staircase are particularly highlighted, which house jewels of sculpture and ornamentation. The exterior of the Logis Royal is restored to its late 18th century condition. It is to Olivier Weets, our chief architect of historical monuments, that we owe these parties of restoration, so convincing and balanced. May he be warmly congratulated here! 

I also salute the hundreds of people who have worked hard for more than three years. The yard welcomed at the strongest more than 600 companions and involved 80 companies. It has benefited from 120 local hires, mainly thanks to the inclusion clauses.

And I don’t forget the INRAP teams for the excavation operations, which were, as always, very well conducted.

Finally, I would like to pay special tribute to MP Jacques Krabal for his tireless commitment. He has done so much to promote Villers-Cotterêts and, more generally, to promote the Francophonie!

Home to an institution that will play a leading international role in promoting and promoting the French language, the castle will become a magnet for the city of Villers-Cotterêts and the Hauts-de-France region.

Open to the city and its inhabitants, the castle will contribute to the dynamism of local cultural life, as well as regional policies for the promotion of the French language and the enhancement of linguistic heritage.

It will make it possible to revive this province of Valois, the first domain of the kings of France, whose rich heritage is today insufficiently known.

It is a whole territory to be rediscovered, where great history and great literature mingle, in landscapes of forests and plains of infinite poetry.

Today, I have the pleasure, on behalf of Julien Denormandie, Minister of Agriculture, with whom I spoke, of announcing the NFB’s decision to award the forest of Retz, the department’s first forest, the “exceptional forest” label.  Retz is the fifteenth French forest to obtain this extremely prestigious recognition: an asset to enhance the region and make it a real cultural and tourist destination!

The flagship initiative of the plan of the President of the Republic «An ambition for the French language and plurilingualism», launched in 2018, the Villers-Cotterêts project is the cornerstone of a renewed French language and Francophonie policy, facilitated and coordinated by the Ministry of Culture, in close collaboration with all other ministries concerned.

It is about making visible to our fellow citizens the place that the French language occupies in the construction of our social bond. An international institution dedicated to the history of our language, its dissemination and its evolution, the future Cité will provide a resource and reference centre for the entire Francophonie, including innovation.

It is not yet time to make the presentation of the route that will be offered to visitors within the Royal Logis. But I would like to express my appreciation and admiration to Xavier North, Barbara Cassin, Hassane Kassi Kouyaté and Zeev Gourarier, the four curators in charge of the design of the permanent exhibition. They conducted a reflection of deep intelligence and great sensitivity, combining scientific rigour and sharing it with the greatest number. It was not easy to make the French language an exhibition object for the general public, for all audiences. They rose to the challenge brilliantly. I also thank Paul de Sinety for having been able to facilitate the work of such a prestigious areopagus.

I do not forget the decisive role of the agency Projectile for in the realization of the scenography. I know that the work with her teams has been particularly fruitful. Bravo to her.

An international institution, the City will also respond to the needs and expectations of the region’s inhabitants, in terms of the French language, the Francophonie and linguistic diversity, as set out in the Hauts-Alpes Language Pact.de France, which I signed in December 2020, with the representatives of the Hauts-de-France Region, the Département de l'Aisne and the Communauté de communes Retz-en-Valois.

We will be celebrating the Semaine de la langue française et de la francophonie, which began last Saturday across France and around the world.

This “weekend”, to use the Quebec expression, the Château de Villers-Cotterêts will vibrate in unison, even if the work is not quite finished, thanks to a rich program focused on the francophonie and the French language.

We will soon have the chance to discover a concrete project resulting from the implementation of this language pact: the Language Mobile Laboratory, entitled «LISTEN-SPEAK». This experimental and particularly exciting device will criss-cross the territory of Hauts-de-France to record the ways of speaking in French and regional languages (Picard and West Flemish).

Thank you to the General Delegation for the French Language and Languages of France, and also to Olivier Baude, Director of Humanum, at the CNRS, as well as to Guy Kaiser and Ruedi Baur, for designing and creating this unique vehicle, where art and design are put at the service of a major scientific project.

The Mobile Laboratory, both fun and scientific, will be crucial for the knowledge of our language. It is intended to be extended to all other regions of our country, to form the largest database of languages spoken in France. I am delighted that through this French sound heritage we can witness the incredible linguistic diversity of our country.

May I be permitted (to myself who have published a book partially written in Breton) to point this out: for having been built and unified around French, our country is nonetheless home to many, many regional languages. We cannot oppose the defence of one to the promotion of the others. We must do both! Defend the language of the Republic and encourage all those who want to to cultivate the language of the place where they have their ties.

The recognition of linguistic diversity is one of my priorities, as is the promotion of the francophonie and the issues of social cohesion raised by the French language.

If, since 1539, in accordance with the ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts, French is the common language of our country, one of the stakes of a French policy is to reaffirm the right to French, by seeking to reduce inequalities in access to French, particularly through the fight against illiteracy and the learning of French for non-francophone foreigners. Knowing how to speak, read and write French is an extraordinary power. The power to say whatever you want. The power of elegance. That of clarity and distinction. “The French language,” Maupassant said, “is pure water that the manicured writers have never been able to and will never be able to disturb.”

French, moreover, as it has developed over the centuries, on all continents, is not the property of one or another. It is not, it is no longer, the depositary or emblem, of a particular identity. It is an instrument of freedom and emancipation. It is a passport for the universal.

The mechanisms of socio-economic and territorial relegation as well as non-participation in social life have as corollary a linguistic insecurity. This phenomenon constitutes a brake on personal development, a brake on social and professional integration, a brake on the exercise of citizenship.

Today, the phenomenon of illiteracy is, of course, a marker of inequalities: 49% of young people who have not passed the middle school meet this problem, against 4.9% of those who have followed a general or technological course in high school.

I welcome the commitment of the public authorities, especially in Aisne, who have developed an ambitious plan to combat illiteracy and the digital divide. I know that I can count on the involvement of the signatories of the Hauts-de-France Language Pact in this matter, as well as on the action of the future Cité, the common house of the French language, of the Francophonie, and of the languages of France.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In this place where the official birth certificate of our national language was signed, in this land of writers, we now have the chance to have a common home. It is now up to us to make it live.

André Malraux said that “La francophonie is not a language, but a civilization capable of securing the future of the world.” Let us have no less ambition.

Long live the future Cité internationale de la langue française! Long live the French language, and all those who speak it!

Thank you.