After 40 Years, Bidding Adieu To Versailles

The front entrance to the Chateau de Versailles
The front entrance to the Chateau de Versailles
Claire Bommelaer and Ariane Bavelier

VERSAILLES — With the attention to detail that comes with doing something for the last time, Béatrix Saule checks on the 200 clocks that chime one after another. She unfolds a shutter to protect the drapes from the sun. She tests the floor to see if there's any movement in stonework.

Saule has been doing some of these tasks for decades, going all the way back to 1976, when she first came to the Palace of Versailles. She's lived here — in France's grandest château — ever since. But now, after a 40-year career, the site's chief curator is finally set to retire.

"I've done all the different jobs here. It is a truly diverse place and offers so many possibilities," says Saule. "I worked in sales, set up exhibition programs, created the cultural services board and finally took over the general management. At one point I was even in charge of security and maintenance."

"One of my claims to fame was the introduction of the vacuum to Versailles!" she adds. "I was the steward of the château, nearly a mistress of the house. That was at the time of graffiti and chewing gum in the locks. All that's a thing of the past. But today we've got the problem of selfies, which are very troublesome. Nowadays people consume tourism. It's all about "doing" Versailles. Before, I think people looked more. They were better at taking everything in."

A very regal room in the Château de Versailles — Photo: Jorge Láscar

Keys to the kingdom

Saule recalls her early days in the Palace and the thrill she got from having the run of the place. The first few weeks were "intoxicating," she says. "We'd open everything with your keys. Wander around at night. Back then, of course, the security situation wasn't the same. We had total freedom. We could even go out onto the rooftops."

At the start of her time at Versailles, Saule and her colleagues didn't have the budget or the manpower available these days. "On the museum preservation team there were just six of us," she says. "We were Jacks of all trades. Everyone did a little of everything." She remembers on one occasion conducting a fire drill in the "Orangery," a greenhouse area connected to the Palace. Saule stuffed an old cauldron with paper and lit it on fire. Then, with some of her colleagues looking on, she took a fire extinguisher and showed them how to use it.

"Back then, preservation was very old-fashioned, very erudite," she says. "It was Gérald Van der Kemp, understanding the importance of communication and patronage, who brought modernity. They turned it into a public institution and that changed everything. Today, there are true specialists. Versailles has ambitions and the means of achieving them."

In the public eye

But there have also been real challenges to job. Particularly difficult is the constant criticism she and her colleagues receive. "For some people, we don't do enough; for others, we do too much. No one's indifferent when it comes to Versailles. When something happens, there's immediately a buzz," she says. The decision to restore the Palace's front gate was a case in point. For Saule, it was a necessary and important development. But many people were highly critical.

"It was the same for the new entrance areas in the Dufour Pavillion," the chief curator explains. She says that the architect, Dominique Perrault, pulled off a near impossible feat but that people complained regardless. "One needs to have real humility when it comes to Versailles, to avoid the impulse of trying to leave one's mark on the place," says Saule.

"A great curator is one who embraces Versailles as a whole," she adds. "The collections are in the decor. The decor is in the buildings. And the buildings are linked to the gardens. At Versailles, you must be a historian, an art historian, a specialist in preventive conservation, and have knowledge of architecture and gardens. I'm a generalist from Versailles."

Beautiful fountains are abundant throughout the gardens at Versailles — Photo: David Blaikie

As a top-level manager, Saule had a standing invitation to all of the Palace's various receptions. And yet at some point, she stopped attending. "Still, I experienced some astonishing receptions," she recalls. "I met the Queen of Denmark, and the Prince and Princess of Hanover ... Obviously the parties add to the burden of running the château, but they are necessary. The receptions with elegant tables are part of Versailles."

Future plans

As much as she loves the Palace and adored her time there, Saule doesn't appreciate all of the many items displayed Versailles. The works of contemporary artist Anish Kapoor, who had an exhibition there last year, comes to mind. "Anish Kapoor? (Silence) I did not like Anish Kapoor but I have a duty to be discreet. As for the controversy, the artist himself brought that on. In describing his work as "the queen's vagina" he knew very well what he was doing ... It's too bad that we talk more about contemporary art at Versailles than about the permanent exhibitions that it has."

Over the course of her four-decade-long career, the curator saw more than a few political bigwigs come through the Palace doors. "All of the presidents of the Republic came here. But only Valéry Giscard d'Estaing 1974-1981 truly loved the château," she says. "He's the one who is most interested. He continues to come to see all the exhibitions. As for François Hollande, he came twice because of what Versailles means for French identity. But he didn't come for Versailles."

And now that it's all coming to an end? What does someone who's lived in a sprawling palace for 40 years do as an encore? "Now I just want to enjoy some time off," she says. "That's what I've missed the most. My husband is waiting impatiently so that we can travel or go see a show. Paradoxically, even though Versailles is always a place of parties and celebration, I couldn't do that here. I was always working too late."

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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