In France, Stéphane Bern is known as Monsieur Patrimoine, or Mr. Heritage in English.
The 55-year-old—a familiar face on French TV— through his not-for-profit organization, the Mission Stéphane Bern, is dedicated to protecting historical monuments throughout the country. “There are 44,000 protected monuments in France,” he tells me in Paris. “And just as many that aren’t protected but are historic.”
More often than not, these buildings need restoration, but often the funds—or the will—aren’t available. Take Notre-Dame de Paris: Months before fire gutted the gothic cathedral, its leadership pleaded with the public, charitable organizations, and corporations for donations to underwrite a much-needed restoration. Not enough was forthcoming. Only after the world-televised inferno did the big money come pouring in.
“There are many more, small Notre-Dames all over France that don’t have money to be maintained and saved,” Bern says. He sets out to make sure those petit Notre-Dames are “not forgotten.”
Bern’s mission was born, like most everything in his work and life, out of his dizzying enthusiasm for all things historical. A sprite with unruly blond hair, twinkly eyes, and a mischievous smile (think a French Gene Wilder), Bern built a career as a journalist in covering nobility and royalty—he edited Dynasty magazine for a few years, and was television network France 2’s go-to man for the William-and-Kate and Harry-and-Meghan weddings. He’s hosted a string of charming, informative TV series as well, including Secrets d’Histoire (which has been on air since 2007), and Le Village Préferé des Français (since 2012), and put out the complementary photo-heavy book, The Best Loved Villages in France.
It was during Bern’s tour of those charming towns and hamlets for Le Village Préferé des Français that he heard complaints from local officials that they couldn’t get the funding they needed to shore up the old church, fountain, or outdoor market hall. “The mayor would tell me, ‘We have no one to help us save it. We have plenty of funds for social issues, but nothing for stone edifices,’” he recalls.
Bern understood. He had personally restored a long-abandoned former royal and military school in Thiron-Gardais, a village in the Perche region southwest of Paris, and had enlisted his friend the landscape designer Louis Benech to restore the gardens to their 17th-century splendor. Bern has since made the school his home, and the gardens are open to the public. During the process, he could see how local governments struggle with such undertakings—the bureaucracy was heavy going, and if the money came, it was usually far less than needed.
A deep Anglophile, Bern began to think about how the British maintain their surfeit of great houses, castles, and Capability Brown\–designed gardens, and went to speak the U.K.’s National Trust to understand how it works. One method was channeling proceeds from the national lottery to historic conservation.
When Bern inaugurated the restored school, his friend Emmanuel Macron, who at the time was running for president, came for the ribbon-cutting. “He saw that 100 people worked on the restoration—windowmakers, carpenters, stonemasons, all these artisans,” Bern remembers. “Projects like this support the savoir faire of France’s historic talents.”
As he explained to Macron, “Patrimony is a treasure for the long term—it’s the fuel for France. It’s a cost but also an investment. If a village is maintained, the inn will be open, restaurants—historic tourism creates a thriving economy. You may get 15,000 visitors a year, which is a lot for a little village that had nothing.”
Patrimony, he adds, is “the only industry you can’t move offshore. Old stones have to stay where they are.”
The message reverberated with Macron, a former investment banker campaigning with a strong economic agenda. To fund such projects, Bern suggested that France do as the British do: introduce a “lotto” to benefit historic conservation. Macron liked what he heard, and promised that if elected, he would appoint Bern to a position to take up the cause.
Sure enough, a few months after Macron’s win in 2017, the new president announced the launch of the “mission to identify our cultural patrimony that is not in good shape and reflect on innovative methods to finance these restorations in the months and the years to come.”
While Bern has President Macron’s blessing, support, and when needed, influence, and the Mission works “in coordination with” the Ministry of Culture, it is wholly independent, and Bern is not paid for his services. “I only answer to the president,” he says.
Along with setting up the national lottery for preservation, which is held on Bastille Day in July, and the Journées de Patrimoine, an E.U.-wide heritage celebration in September, Bern has put forth a few other fundraising initiatives, such as historic-monument postage stamps and an Elysée Palace gift shop online, with partial proceeds from both going to the fund. To further fatten the kitty, he lobbies deep-pocketed French individuals and corporations for donations, and even solicits the public: On the Mission’s website, there is a “Donate Here” button. In 2018, his association pulled in €50 million to contribute to France’s annual patrimony budget of €326 million.
He’s also cut some of the red tape. Now, whenever anyone sees a historic building in disrepair, all one has to do is file a notice on the organization's site. “We review the dossier, and if it needs help, we turn our attention to it,” Bern says. More than 2,000 monuments have qualified, including an 18th-century pigeonnier in the Haute-Loire, a dilapidated 14th-century château in Provence, a 15th-century cannon tower in the Haute-Marne, and the glorious 12th-century Notre-Dame de Sénanque Abbey in the Vaucluse. (Projects are listed on the website, with a GoFundMe-like meter that shows how much financing is needed, and how much has been raised.)
The money is funneled through the Fondation du Patrimoine, a private organization independent of Bern’s, that serves, he says, “as the bank.” Among Bern’s successes: the revitalization of the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs in Lyon and the protection of a corner of a quarry in Marseille from which Gallo-Romans sourced stones to build the city 2,500 years ago.
Bern’s mission is not directly involved in the rebuilding of Notre-Dame de Paris; the French government is steering that endeavor. But he has weighed in on it, telling Agence France-Presse after the blaze that he is worried about the rush to launch reconstruction and the announcement of a competition to replace the spire, warning of “starchitects who want to leave their name on this building.”
He felt the urge to speak up, he tells me, because, “since I am not part of politics, and I am popular in France, my voice carries weight.
“The public listens to what I have to say.”