Paris (AFP) - One of France's most historic institutions has hit back after state auditors eviscerated it as "sclerotic" and accused "moonlighting" staff of only working a third of the year.
The Mobilier National, which was set up in the 17th century to decorate royal palaces and still restores and supplies fine furniture and tapestries for the Elysee Palace and Versailles, needs to be "radically reformed", a report by the auditors said.
National audit office inspectors, which found large quantities of alcohol in Mobilier National's workshops, said staff were often absent and used tools and equipment to "moonlight" on their own projects.
Officials of the venerable body, whose gilded handmade furniture costs a fortune, were not able to say precisely where 7,800 objects it was supposed to be looking after were -- one tenth of its inventory.
This left "a very large part of the collections exposed to the risk of theft," their report warned.
But staff have hotly disputed the allegations, saying auditors picked out the actions of a few to blacken the whole institution.
They also questioned the bitter "war of the glues" which the report said was wracking the body, with traditionalist conservators sticking with animal-based glues used since the 18th century, while those making new objects tend to go for modern vinyl-based ones.
A botched restoration of a Louis XVI's "Vaudreuil" armchair worth one million euros ($1.1 million) wiped hundreds of thousands of euros off its value, the report published last week added.
Only 25 newly designed objects have been created in the past seven years, when previously an average of 20 a year were made, it said.
But the Mobilier National's director and senior conservators have hit back strongly, denouncing "grave and grotesque factual errors" in the report which they said they found insulting.
They deplored how the report had "highlighted two or three cases, which already had been identified and sanctioned, to heap opprobrium on the 350 people" who work for the organisation.
Director Herve Lemoine said the inspectors had come to the "amazing conclusion" that many staff were paid nearly twice what they actually were.
He told AFP that it was "not true" that staff worked only 30 hours a week.
"Another grotesque mistake is that they only worked 120 days (a year). Obviously they work much more than that. They only counted the hours of restoration that were billed to (various public) administrations," Lemoine added.
Instead he blamed chronic under-investment for the body's woes.
The Mobilier National, which includes the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris which holds the world's biggest collection of tapestries, "had only a third of the administrative and support staff we need to do our job properly restoring and creating furniture for official residences," he insisted.
French soft power
"If we are so useless why has the national audit office ordered two tapestries from us?" demanded Helene Bersani, head of Mobilier National's textiles department.
Cerille Faucheux, the head of the carpentry department, told AFP that he found the audit office's criticism "hard to swallow", and that he was fearful that the institution's future was "being sealed on false accusations".
He said that what the audit office had dubbed the "war of the glues" was a part of a "normal discussion between experts".
Faucheux, whose staff are about start work on the French prime minister's office, said its workshop preserved artisanal know-how and historic trades that exist nowhere else in France.
Lemoine said that while he took on board some of the report's findings, its findings could devastate a precious "ecosystem of 120 small workshops" which depend on public money.
"We have already begun our own remoulding," he added. "Our establishment is a rough diamond that only needs to be recut so that it will shine with a new and extraordinary brilliance," he claimed.
Jerome Bescond, who heads Mobilier National's studio which creates new pieces, said it contributed hugely to the sophisticated image of France abroad, with furniture as potent a source of soft power as French gastronomy, he argued.
That image is so strong that Hermes, the world's second richest luxury fashion brand, used one of its spaces for its Paris fashion week men's show last month.