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Louvre satellite seeks to revive bleak French region

General view of the Louvre Museum with its glass Pyramid entrance designed by Chinese-born U.S. Architect I.M. Pei, in Paris, August 6, 2007
General view of the Louvre Museum with its glass Pyramid entrance designed by Chinese-born U.S. Architect I.M. Pei, in Paris, August 6, 2007

By Vicky Buffery and Clotaire Achi

LENS, France (Reuters) - The Paris Louvre opens a regional offshoot this week in a former mining town in northern France, hoping to revitalize a region better known for football fans and takeaway chip stands than the noble pursuit of art.

The 150 million euro ($195 million) art centre in Lens, to be inaugurated by President Francois Hollande on Tuesday, will house a rotating collection of 205 works from the Louvre museum in Paris, along with temporary exhibitions.

Its design, four sprawling rectangles in glass and polished metal structures, bears some resemblance to the modern glass pyramid in Paris. But all similarity ends there.

While the Louvre looks out onto the elegant Tuileries Gardens, with manicured lawns and flowerbeds, Lens offers views onto the Bollaert stadium, home to local football club RC Lens.

In the other direction, slag heaps crowd the skyline.

The building itself sits on a disused coalmine, homage to a once-thriving coal industry, and a reminder of an industrial decline that has sapped the region of jobs.

The last mine in Lens, situated in the tip of France near the port of Calais, closed in 1986, according to the town's website. Today, the unemployment rate stands at 16 percent, well above the national average of 10.2 percent.

Tellingly, the town's 36,000 residents last hit the headlines in 2008, when their football club played Paris Saint-Germain. Fans in Paris unfurled a giant banner in the stadium, branding the Lensois "Unemployed, Paedophiles and Inbreds."

The incident came a few months after the hugely popular movie "Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis" poked fun at the region.

The Lens branch is the first ever regional offshoot of the Louvre, which is also planning a brand new museum in Abu Dhabi for 2014.

Louvre President Henri Loyrette said it was time the internationally renowned museum emerged from its privileged cocoon in Paris and played its role as a truly national museum.

"It was very important for the Louvre to be in a place where you didn't have any culture before," he told Reuters.

"Lens has been ravaged by all forms of crises, it's also exactly the type of population we wanted to reach."

Authorities for the surrounding region of Nord-Pas-de-Calais hope the museum will draw 500,000 visitors a year, from locals to tourists from Paris, London, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The Paris Louvre is one of the most-visited museums in the world with around 9 million visitors a year.

Regional council head Daniel Percheron said the Lens branch, which has been three years in the making, could boost economic output in the area by 5 to 10 percent over the next decade and give the town back a sense of ambition.

According to Percheron, the Louvre is just the start of the revitalization of Lens as the town plans to renovate its old 1930s and 1950s buildings over the next decade and convert them into hotels restaurants and shops for the influx of visitors.

Residents agree the struggling town, where many shops are boarded up and some homes lie derelict, needs revitalizing.

Waitress Adeline Grosseny, 26, said she worried the bleak surroundings might alarm people stepping off the train from afar. "It's a lovely idea and I hope it works," she said. "I'm not that convinced though - why would anyone want to come here?"

The initial 205 works at the museum are displayed chronologically, and span from the birth of writing in 3,500 BC to the Industrial Revolution.

Among Percheron's favorite works on loan from Paris is Eugene Delacroix's famous commemoration of the July Revolution of 1830, called "Liberty Leading the People".

He said the painting - which portrays Liberty as a brave woman carrying France's tricolor flag in one hand and a musket in the other urging the people over the barricades - was an apt leadership metaphor for Hollande six months into his term, as he struggles with the euro zone crisis and a stalled economy. ($1 = 0.7689 euros)

(Editing by Alexandria Sage, Catherine Bremer and Paul Casciato)

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