French President's art project causes stir in Paris. Mitterrand aims to put France at the forefront of artistic creativity

``I thought it was just a bunch of junk,'' Christian admitted. ``Oh, no, I thought they were real suitcases,'' countered Patrick.

``Metal suitcases?'' wondered Collette.

Call it art. The 20-foot-high pile of bronze luggage which was erected earlier this month outside the train station Gare St. Lazare represents President Franois Mitterrand's latest effort to bring France back to the forefront of artistic creativity.

Mr. Mitterrand has commissioned about 200 other pieces of sculptures to be placed in various points around Paris.

Many of the works are dedicated to famous Frenchmen such as poet Arthur Rimbaud, actor Jean Vilar, and writer Albert Camus. Others reflect significant movements such as a monument to the French resistance during World War II.

``In recent years, we have lost the touch for statuary,'' explained Dominique Sainte-Lague of the Culture Ministry's Delegation for Plastic Arts. ``President Mitterrand personally loves sculpture and wanted to change this.''

But Mitterrand's choices -- he chooses the commissions -- are not always popular. The Army opposed the plan to place a statue of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in the courtyard of the 'Ecole Militaire, the spot where he was stripped of his commission in 1895.

``We're still searching for a suitable site,'' said Sainte-Lague.

Plans to place any piece of art in the middle of the Palais Royale square met considerable resistance from local residents. They fear the neighborhood's low-key atmosphere will be destroyed.

``They're a bunch of super-privileged rich,'' retorted Sainte-Lague. ``They have no right to complain.''

At least, though, President Mitterrand is not being accused of playing partisan politics. In addition to commissioning a statue of his Socialist mentor, former Prime Minister Pierre Mend`es-France, he has ordered a statue of his old conservative opponent, former President Georges Pompidou.

``Art isn't political,'' explained Sainte-Lague.

But the most original works have nothing to do with politics. Take the pile of valises. Its creator, a French artist called Arman who lives in New York, dubbed it ``an accumulation.'' At the Gare St. Lazare he teamed it with another bronze sculpture: a pile of oversized watches.

The effect is intriguing. On their way from the train station, travelers stop and stare. Like Christian, Patrick, and Collette, some are amused, some puzzled, and others impressed by it.

``Very realistic,'' explained Collete.

``It makes the station a lot cheerier,'' added Christian.

``What a clever, original idea,'' concluded Patrick.

Judging by their reactions, President Mitterrand has realized his goal. As Collete said, ``It shows what great artists we French are.''

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