Stéphane Bern, organiser of France’s first heritage lottery, is himself something of a cherished institution. A historian, television star, and royal commentator, he is now lending his celebrity to a cause he holds dear – preserving the country’s crumbling past.
But there is another side of Bern that is less well-known: he is an Anglophile.
And the whole lottery project is explicitly based on his experience in the UK.
“England has always been a source of inspiration. The British have more respect for their patrimony than we French,” he says.
“I met people from the (UK’s) National Lottery and they told me how some of the proceeds were used for conservation, and I thought: that’s what we must do in France.
“I went to Emmanuel Macron (when he was still a candidate) and told him, and he said: ‘Okay when I am president, you go ahead.'”
The upshot is the Loto du Patrimoine, whose first draw takes place today.
In fact, the Loto comprises two separate games. The annual prize draw tickets cost €3 and promise a possible jackpot of €13 million. In addition, there is an ongoing scratch-card game that costs €15 a shot. Participants stand a one-in-three chance of at least getting their money back, and big winners can get as much as €1.5m.
With 10% of ticket sales going to his Heritage Fund, Bern hopes to raise €15m-€20m in the first year.
In the run-up to the launch, he held a nationwide consultation over the internet, leading to a list of some 2,000 buildings in urgent need of preservation.
This list was whittled down to 269 priority projects, of which 18 are described as “emblematic” and will be the first to receive money.
These include a Roman aqueduct near Lyon; a fort on the Glenan islands off Brittany; a 19th century villa west of Paris; an industrial-era railway roundhouse; a theatre in the eastern town of Bar-le-Duc; and various chateaux and stately homes.
Bern’s conviction is that it is not the big name monuments in France that need protection – they get all the money they need from the state. It is the thousands of forgotten treasures that languish unaided in villages across the land.
“France is richer than the UK in terms of heritage. In every French town and village you will find a historic house, a church, a fountain – something of interest,” he says.
“But the problem is, it will not be restored or preserved as it would be in the UK. So we are richer, but we are also poorer.”
“The French have this instinct to expect the state to do everything. But my message to them is simple: we – the people – we are the state. Heritage belongs to us, and it is up to us to preserve it.”
Bern knows that the lottery will only achieve a small amount, but he hopes to open people’s minds.
And his next ambition is also directly inspired by the UK. This would be a card-carrying membership scheme, allowing people who make a yearly payment free access to national monuments.
In other words, a French National Trust.