Editor, writer, journalist

Hotel de Matignon exclusive

Matignon_mar08.qxpFollowing my interview with Penelope Fillon (the British wife of then Prime Minister Francois Fillon), she offered me a private tour of Hotel de Matignon (the French Prime Minister’s residence). My feature appeared in the March 2008 issue of FRANCE Magazine.


 

With the tricolore fluttering above its entrance and the
garde républicaine stationed outside, there is no mistaking that the building that lies beyond the heavy black gates on rue de Varenne on Paris’s Left
Bank, is one of France’s most important political centres. As the offices of the French Prime Minister, Hôtel de Matignon has, since May last year, been the domain of François Fillon.
Matignon is not only his workplace, it is also his home and he and his British wife Penelope, along with three of their five children, live here in the private apartment of this grand and historic mansion. As the most recent residents, they follow the families of 18 previous prime ministers, several dukes, duchesses, princes, emperors, a king, Charles de Gaulle, a community of nuns, a dancer and a millionaire American socialite, who have all lived here since it was built in 1722.
Tours of the mansion, known simply as ‘Matignon’, are rare and the public are granted access only once a year as part of the journées du patrimoine when hundreds of private buildings throughout France open their doors to the public for just one weekend in September. For the chance to have a look at the Prime Minister’s residence on those days, hopeful visitors must queue for hours before filing through the mansion in a line and photography is prohibited. However, after FRANCE
Magazine interviewed Welsh-born Penelope Fillon at the family’s Loire château for our November 2007 issue, she kindly invited us to Paris for a private tour of this fascinating building and its garden.
So, it is with great excitement that we are let through its doors for an exclusive look around, guided by Mme Fillon herself and the knowledgeable curator, M. Richard Flahaut.

Security is tight. However, as we enter through a side door next to the main gate, the navy-uniformed guards are polite and surprisingly friendly, even jovial, as they ask for our passports and scan our
belongings. We exit security and come out into the enormous courtyard to see Matignon in all its grandeur. With its striking façade of warm beige stone, the mansion is elegantly understated. Friendly faces are carved into the arched window lintels and the Declaration of Human Rights is painted
on the wall of the left wing. Rather than using the grand main entrance reserved for important visitors, we enter via a small door to the right. Another guard meets us in an ornate marble hall and guides us up a grand staircase and through a maze of doors and corridors to the Fumoir.
Hanging on the walls are huge works of modern art which seem a little incongruous alongside the glittering chandelier and ornate gilt paintwork.
As we wait, various guards appear and disappear through the two doors hidden in the walls and then
Mme Fillon joins us. Dressed simply, her brown tweed jacket gives away her preference for the countryside and the family’s country home – their 12th century château in Sarthe, where we
previously met. There, Mme Fillon keeps horses, enjoys gardening and does yoga in the 19th-century tower. As we chat and compare the two residences, she explains that in the winter months there is
little point going back at weekends: “It takes two days to heat it up, and then you have to come back to Paris again.” The private residence at Matignon is smaller and therefore cosier, but Mme Fillon is
conscious that it is just a temporary home.
Having had to move out of their government residence when M. Fillon lost his job as Education Minister in the 2005 government of then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, she is well aware
that, even as Prime Minister, he is just as dispensable. “Everyone is extremely helpful and charming, but I don’t treat it as home,” she says. “You always know that you’re going to go at some stage. That is
part of the job.”
The week we visit, Nicolas Sarkozy is facing his first big challenge since taking office and, as a result of his pension reforms, public transport workers are on strike. The resulting traffic chaos has put paid to M. Fillon’s planned trip to Saint-Étienne and he is unexpectedly working at Matignon today. Mme Fillon gestures to one of the doors, “That’s his office, but I think he’s in a meeting somewhere else at
the moment,” she says. I ask if she sees much of her husband during the day, quietly hoping that we’ll get to meet him and see the place in which it all happens, to which she replies: “There are so many
doors here that all I usually see of him during the day is his head poking around one of them!”.
Soon we are joined by Richard Flahaut, art historian and curator of Matignon, whose journey has been delayed by the transport strikes. Flustered and obviously mortified to be late for the appointment, he greets Mme Fillon with a sincere handshake, bowing as he does so. It’s a gesture that reminds me that, although Mme Fillon is disarmingly friendly and down-to-earth,
she is, nevertheless, married to the French head of government.
Having worked as a museum curator and university lecturer in the history of art, the distinguished and eloquently spoken, M. Flauhaut went on to become a specialist in the history of the many cultural institutions and government buildings throughout France and has worked at Matignon on and off since 2002 according to the wishes of the seven different Prime Ministers who have held office since then. Understandably, he is well versed in the history of Matignon and Mme Fillon is keen to join us on our tour to learn more about her relatively new home.
Seat of Cabinet We start our tour in the Council Chamber, a long gallery room at the side of the building that boasts three chandeliers, beautiful gilt and painted wood panelling and the biggest table I’ve ever seen, covered in a rich red table cloth. At each seat, there is a modern microphone
terminal that is a stark contrast to the antique décor. “Every Wednesday the Cabinet meet here, there are 80 seats,” explains M. Flahaut, before Mme Fillon confides that the table is not the antique
piece of furniture you might expect. “It’s very easy to remove,” she laughs as she hitches up the red table cloth to reveal an ugly MDF table top.
The room does, however, boast another item that is almost as long as the table and is an antique. The tapestry on the wall depicts the story of Don Quixote and is one of a series woven in 1768.
“There are copies all over the world,” says M. Flahaut. “There’s even four versions in the west wing of Buckingham Palace.”
The sound of creaking floorboards from above us echoes around the room prompting M. Flahaut to comment: “Up there are the Prime Minister’s living quarters – that’s probably him walking above us. It’s funny how it makes everything shake.”
As the biggest room at Matignon, the Council Chamber has been the backdrop for hundreds of occasions through the years and is used for receptions for visitors such as Queen Elizabeth, George
Bush Senior and Princess Diana and for the presentation of medals such as the Légion d’honneur. It was here, in November 1958, that Winston Churchill was presented with the Croix de la Libération by Charles de Gaulle. No doubt it was a memorable occasion, but perhaps not for the right reasons. Churchill was, by that stage, quite frail and so took the lift from the ground floor. The tiny elevator,
typically French in its dimensions, struggled to take the strain and jammed half-way between floors leaving the elderly statesman stuck inside for around 20 minutes.

Next door to the Council Chamber is the Yellow Room, which was used as a salon by the princesses of Monaco when they were residents in the mid-1700s. Later, however, it was used as the office of all
the Présidents du Conseil between 1935 and 1958. Among them were Robert Schuman and Guy Mollet. It was here that Léon Blum, who, along with the leaders of the 1936 strikes, signed the seminal ‘Matignon Accords’ agreeing to the 40-hour work week and paid holidays. M. Flauhaut leads the three of us through to the Blue Room, where M. Fillon meets foreign diplomats. It is even more ornate than the council chamber and its cornflower tones are found in the silk-covered Louis XV chairs, on the Chinese paintings on the walls, and in a luxuriously soft patterned rug. M.
Flahaut explains:
“This room is also called the Grand Cabinet Doré, which used to be the main room used by the princes of Monaco. The décor has not changed at all, it has been kept exactly as it was in the 18th century.” Above the door frames are scenes of Chinese life, something that fascinated people of this era. “There are dragons and phoenixes, which, again, are typical of the Chinese style.”
Endless illusion Through another door, we find ourselves in the Red Room – and I’m amazed to
find it even more spectacularly decorated. In the days when the princesses of Monaco were resident, the Red Room was the throne room. During the 19th century, in the Galliera period from 1852 to 1855
(see page 34), the Galliera family asked for more Italian décor. “That’s why they inserted these médaillonsinto the original 18th-century wood panels,” says M. Flahaut. In these panels, there are
hundreds of semi-precious stones such as jade and onyx that twinkle in the light from the huge chandelier that hangs low in the middle of the room. As I stand underneath, my eye is drawn to the two mirrors on opposing sides of the room which give the illusion of an endless corridor of sumptuous red and gold – the sight leaves me completely awestruck. M. Flahaut goes over to the double doors at
the rear of the room and swings them open, revealing an elegant lobby area with doors that open out on to the main courtyard. “Here you have Le Grand Vestibule d’Honneur, which is used to welcome official guests. You see this is not heavily decorated – it is simple but the sense of space is what makes it special,” he says. It isn’t until this point that I realise that in this part of the house, the middle, the building is just two rooms deep – quite a modest size, given its grand history.
On the other side of the Red Room, the windows look out into the vast garden. Mme Fillon enthuses that she loves Matignon’s garden. It is the largest private garden in Paris and, with an area of 2.5
hectares, it feels more like a park. It was designed by the great French garden designer Achille Duchêne (1866-1947), whose other works include the gardens of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte (built by Louis Le Vau, the architect for Versailles), Château de Courances at Essonne and England’s Blenheim Palace. “It has a distinct French perspective but it was redesigned in 1902 to follow the taste of an English garden,” explains M. Flahaut.
As we wander down through an elegant avenue of trees, Mme Fillon explains that a relatively new tradition dictates that every Prime Minister must plant a tree in the garden on St Catherine’s day. “It had to be approved of course, but we’ve chosen a ‘wedding cake tree’ [variegated giant dogwood]. It will look lovely. It goes up in tiers, hence the name, and will have small, pale yellow flowers in the spring – we might still be here then,” she says, a reminder that this is very much a temporary home for her. In the far corner of the garden is Mme Fillon’s favourite corner of Matignon – the Pavillon de
Musique. It was built in the 18th century for the Prince of Monaco, but when Charles de Gaulle lived at Matignon for six months in 1958 it was used as a chapel. These days it is reserved for the private use of the Prime Minister and Mme Fillon explains it is the ideal place to escape to when Matignon gets a bit too much; with so many guards and staff working in the building, she admits it’s rare she is ever alone. The Pavillon is a sort of holiday home, without even leaving the grounds.
The most recent occasion to be celebrated there, however, was far from tranquil – their youngest son Arnaud’s sixth birthday party. “He invited half his class and we had to put red and white tape across the pathways to limit them to an area, otherwise… well… who knows where all of them would have got to,” she laughs. As we stroll through the garden on our way back to the house, Mme Fillon explains that past employees of Matignon retain the privilege of having access to the garden, even after they have left their jobs there: “A lap of the garden is 600 metres, so many people still come here and do
their daily jogging.” M. Flauhaut adds: “It reflects the family atmosphere here.”
Indeed, it isn’t only families and ex-staff who leave a legacy here. So too do the pets of some of the former residents: Mme Fillon points out two little gravestones partly hidden under some ivy.
“These are the graves of the dogs that belonged to the Austrian Ambassador when they lived here,” she says, clearly tickled by the sentiment.
Queen Elizabeth visited Matignon in 2004 as part of her visit to France to mark the centenary of the Entente Cordiale. She entered the property through the garden entrance with great pomp. “She came for a very official lunch and arrived with Prince Philip in her car. The garde[républicaine] was in front of the house playing their music. All the horses paraded on the lawn. It was very impressive,” says M. Flahaut, enthusiastically. Matignon has, obviously, welcomed hundreds of heads of state through the years and the last US president to visit was Bill Clinton in 1994. Back inside, we return to the Fumoir
and find that the door to M. Fillon’s office is open. Unfortunately, the elusive M. Fillon is elsewhere but it does mean that we can look around and I suddenly feel as though I’m in an episode of Through the Keyhole.
With several wall-to-ceiling windows, a chandelier, and white and gilt detail on the walls, there is no doubt this is a room that has witnessed some truly historic moments. The modern furniture blends in
well with the elegant surroundings and there’s a large glass-topped table, some leather chairs around a coffee table and a beautiful fireplace below an enormous mirror. On the mantelpiece there is an
official photo of the boss, Nicolas Sarkozy, with the tricolore, and a black and white picture of Charles de Gaulle – so far, so prime ministerial. On a shelf sits a large photo of LeMans Classic series car race.
As a native of Le Mans, M. Fillon is an avid fan of motor-racing and has actually taken part in the classic car race twice.
Mme Fillon picks up the photograph next to it and says: “This is my favourite photo.”
A closer look reveals a picture of M. and Mme Fillon with two of their eldest children and The Rolling Stones. Also on the shelf is a black and white portrait of Mssrs Fillon and Sarkozy, taken during the presidential campaign trail, both looking more like movie stars than politicians. On M. Fillon’s desk there is a biography by French-Guadeloupe journalist and news presenter Christine Kelly (François Fillon: Le secret et l’ambition), published the previous week and gaining a lot of press attention. On the desk there is also his own book, titled La France peut supporter la vérité, which he wrote when he
was “between jobs” and which analyses the French attitude towards politics. In stark contrast to these two philosophical and political tomes, there are colourful drawings by six-year-old Arnaud scattered
over the desk showing that, above all, M. Fillon is a family man.
Mme Fillon kindly invites us for lunch and so we join her in the private dining room for a meal cooked by staff in the Matignon kitchen. All the official meals are prepared there and as we tuck into a simple yet delicious main course of chicken, the door opens a few inches and the PM’s head appears around
it. M. Fillon strides across the room, greets us with a “bonjour”and a firm handshake and disappears as quickly as he arrived.