What Voltaire’s crumbling chapel tells us

by Malcolm Curtis|April 26, 2012|Tribune de Genève Blogs

The chapel “erected to God” by Voltaire in 1761 still survives, but barely.

Plastic sheets cover the roof of the crumbling stone edifice adjacent to the chateau built for the great enlightenment thinker in the town of Ferney-Voltaire, the French town bordering Geneva.

Its faded wooden doors are locked, window panes smashed, the clock in the tower no longer works and weeds crowd around the building’s base.

The dilapidated house of worship could stand as an emblem for the general lack of investment in public heritage and infrastructure in the Pays de Gex region and adjacent areas.

The French government of Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin acquired Voltaire’s  chateau and its grounds from a private owner in 1998.

The mansion and chapel were declared national monuments back in 1958 but both had fallen into neglect.

Under government ownership, the chateau opened to the public, including the wooded park with its view on the Alps and a pasture tended by a herd of sheep.

But after almost 14 years, while the grounds are better kept, little progress has been made to renovate either the chapel or the chateau.

Yet for 20 years this was home to one of France’s greatest writers and thinkers.

He is buried in Paris’s Panthéon, where the motto inscribed at the entrance reads, “To its great men, a greatful fatherland.”

Chauvinism aside, where is that gratitude evident in Ferney, where his chateau should be a revered national shrine?

A clerk at the boutique marking the entrance to the chateau assured me this week that work on the roof of the chapel, stalled for several years, would be completed this summer.

Finding the money for such work was “not easy,” she indicated.

For years, the people of Ferney-Voltaire appeared to turn their backs on Voltaire and his chateau.

The town’s mayor François Meylan, a member of the Green party,  was among those who realized the missed opportunities.

The chateau is a natural tourist attraction and its grounds offer an appealing place for people to walk and enjoy the surrounding green space in a municipality that is short on parks.

Meylan has spearheaded efforts to capitalize on Voltaire’s fame, in addition to lobbying successfully for better public transport and drafting a community plan that attempts to rectify the hodge-podge planning of the past.

But Ferney and the Pays de Gex could do with better support from the national government, set to change in the coming French elections.

Despite a ferocious (and according to some critics, mendacious) campaign mounted by the right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, polls suggest he is headed for defeat in the presidential election set for May 6.

The parliamentary elections in June will be crucial in deciding whether Socialist François Hollande will have a free hand in running the country.

With France suffering an economic crisis, it is not clear what impact Hollande can make in areas of public investment needed, not just for national monuments like Voltaire’s chateau, but in other areas, such as public infrastructure.

The Pays de Gex region is among those across the country in desperate need of better transportation facilities, with major capital infusions required for public transport and highways.

As a dormitory for Geneva, the region is experiencing strong economic growth, marked by a boom in home construction.

But French investment in schools and health care facilities has not caught up and the transportation crunch — not just in the Pays de Gex but in the adjoining Haute-Savoie region — is adversely impacting Geneva, which faces gridlock during rush hours.

Common sense dictates the need for action but as Voltaire once famously said, “common sense is not so common.”

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About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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