France’s beloved abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel has reached a ripe old age. It’s been 1,000 years since the laying of its first stone.
The millennial of the UNESCO World Heritage site and key Normandy tourism magnet is being celebrated until November with exhibits, dance shows and concerts. And now a presidential visit.
French President Emmanuel Macron went there Monday and delivered a speech in which he called on the French to “push themselves further” in global and existential challenges like that of climate change. He drew a comparison with the abbey that has stood strong over time and embodies the “French spirit” of “resilience” and “resistance.” It was veiled rhetoric, coming one day before another protest against his contested pension reform law that has been passed.
Ever since former President François Mitterrand in 1983, France’s leaders have flocked to this symbolically important site to send out political messages. In 2007, former President Nicolas Sarkozy even launched his presidential campaign there.
Macron’s presidential advisers had said of this visit that the “walls and the eternity of the Mount” seem to carry “the notions of resistance and resilience” of the D-Day landings that are being commemorated this week in the same region.
Macron also visited a new exhibit tracing the Romanesque abbey’s history via 30 objects and pieces, including a restored statue of Saint Michael. Legend has it that the archangel Michael appeared in 708, duly instructing the bishop of nearby Avranches to build him a church on the rocky outcrop.
The exhibit, two years in the making, opened last month. It covers the complex process of building what is considered an architectural jewel on a rocky island linked to the mainland only by a narrow causeway at high tide.
Four crypts were constructed on the granite tip along with a church on top. The exhibit explains how the original structure, built in 966, became too small for pilgrims, spurring on the builders to create the 11th-century abbey that stands to this day.
France has spent more than 32 million euros ($34 million) over 15 years to restore the building, and the work is nearing completion. Authorities have also tried in recent years to protect the monument’s surrounding environment from the impact of mass tourism.
One of the most popular French destinations outside Paris, Mont-Saint-Michel island attracted 2.8 million visitors last year, including 1.3 million for the abbey. It was not closed to visitors for the presidential visit, but local authorities were taking measures to make it go as smoothly as possible.