The most widely reported international news from France this past month, aside from Lance Armstrong’s seventh consecutive Tour de France victory, concerned French President Jacques Chirac’s bizarre remarks while dining with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Recalling a Scottish host who served him a plate of Scotland’s national dish, haggis and neaps, Mr. Chirac took a swipe at British cuisine. “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that,” he declared. “After Finland, it’s the country with the worst food.”
Following London’s triumph over Paris in the bidding to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Mr. Chirac proclaimed in his Bastille Day address to the nation the self-evident superiority of all things French over what he called the “British model,” citing France’s better health care, greater longevity, higher birth rate and spending on education and research.
With the French unemployment rate seemingly stuck at about 10 percent, twice that of Great Britain, and anemic economic growth, Mr. Chirac apparently felt his nervous people needed some reassurance that all was well in France.
But did his strangely obsessive harping convey just the opposite?
With France apparently wrestling with unaccustomed national self-doubt and status anxiety, the timing could hardly be better for the publication of “The Essence of Style: How the French Invented High Fashion, Fine Food, Chic Cafes, Style, Sophistication, and Glamour,” scholar Joan DeJean’s informative and entertaining new history of France’s emergence centuries ago as the global superpower of style, the hegemon of the high life.
Of course, the French did not really “invent” all of these things — although they can claim sole credit for champagne, folding umbrellas and creme brulee, among other things. What they did do, during the reign of Louis XIV, the famed “Sun King,” was to give state support to the perfecting of the technology of production, the manufacturing and the branding and marketing of the commodities of these industries.
So successful was this push that France came to possess a quasi-monopoly on the sale of a dazzling array of luxury fashion items to the rest of Europe.
At the same time, the wealthy residents of the city of Paris, the aristocrats of Versailles and, indeed, the king himself became living advertisements for the trappings of the high life the French sold to the increasing number of foreign tourists who came to gape at the city’s wonders.
Those unable to come to Paris read about them in the newspapers and the newly created fashion magazines or visited the displays that circulated through Europe of miniature dolls modeling the latest clothing styles.
Miss DeJean traces the rise of French celebrity hairdressers, chefs, diamond setters, perfumeries, fashion couturiers and magazines — and the cafes where these items could be seen, worn, ingested or read by the privileged few who could afford them.
France’s dash to global pre-eminence in these sectors was no accident, according to Miss DeJean. Louis XIV, who built the massive palace of Versailles and a good deal of the landmark buildings and monuments of Paris, made a calculated decision, in close collaboration with his Finance Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert, to “make both himself and his country legendary,” she argues. “When his reign began, his nation in no way exercised dominion over the realm of fashion.
By its end, his subjects had become accepted all over the Western world as the absolute arbiters in matters of style and taste, and his nation had found an economic mission: It ruled over the sectors of the luxury trade that have dominated that commerce ever since.”
The high-life culture industry remains very much alive in our day, of course. There are still expensive clothes to wear, restaurants to frequent and baubles to flaunt. But to what extent does France still dominate the luxury trades? If it has lost ground, how did that happen?
During the 19th century, Great Britain became the economic and military giant, while French culture and fashion continued to reign supreme in Europe. During the 20th century, however, France was unlucky enough to be the battleground of two world wars, and its luxury industry came under pressure first from the Americanization, and subsequently the globalization, of culture.
Fine dining, for example, is no longer synonymous with French cuisine. Our cities offer first-class foods from most of the corners of the world. My neighborhood, for example, offers French fare that must compete with Italian, Thai, Chinese, Brazilian, Vietnamese, Indian, Ethiopian and Mexican, among others, with at least one new national cuisine seeming to materialize every year. Fejoada, anyone?
French wine, which even the French are drinking less, must compete with vintages arriving from California, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and many other locales. The same goes for French cheeses. As for clothing, the fashion experts, so far as I can determine, seem to concur that the world of haute couture is dead, or is merely a walking corpse though the body may still frequent the Parisian runways.
What about the arts? France certainly had her moment with the new-wave film directors of the 1950s and 1960s, but the U.S. and international markets seem to have dried up even for the best French films. Indeed, France seems to be having trouble hanging on to its own domestic market, to judge from occasional official efforts to limit foreign access to it.
In the short piece “Paris France,” Gertrude Stein explained her decision to live in Paris beginning in 1903 by saying simply, “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” At the dawn of the last century, Paris was the city of the modern, the city of the avant-garde, and it drew painters, writers and every other kind of artist from around the globe.
Picasso came to work in Paris from Spain, Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet came to dance from Russia, Modigliani to paint from Italy. In the 1920s, James Joyce came to finish his masterpiece, “Ulysses.” F. Scott Fitzgerald passed through the city on his way to the south of France to finish “The Great Gatsby” and afterward returned to Paris to start “Tender Is the Night.” Ernest Hemingway began his writing career there and went on to fix in print the era of the “lost generation” in his novel “The Sun Also Rises.”
During the decade of the 1920s, however, a shift already was taking place. Fitzgerald, for example, writing from Paris in 1921 to his friend, the critic Edmund Wilson, announced, “France makes me sick. … You may have spoken in jest about N.Y. as the capital of culture, but in 25 years it will be just as London is now. Culture follows money.”
As if on cue, in 1946, 25 years after Fitzgerald wrote his letter to Wilson, the great French avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp had to decide whether to return to Paris or stay in New York: He chose New York and eventually became an American citizen.
During a trip back to Paris in 1966, Duchamp explained his choice in an interview: “It’s a madhouse in New York. Here in Paris, as far as I can see, it seems less so. It always takes so long to get started in Paris. Even if there are interesting people, they don’t influence the rest. They have no sense of gaiety. They never say, ‘I’m young, I can do what I want, I can dance.’ ”
Duchamp was hardly the only artist to sense the ebbing of Parisian artistic vitality. By the end of World War II, the international center of gravity of the visual arts had shifted decisively from Paris to New York.
The French retain much of the impeccable design sense and engineering genius that propelled the great age of Louis XIV. But they also remain trapped in the model of a centrally directed, government-driven economy that Louis XIV also left as his legacy. Think of the Concorde: so beautiful, so uneconomical.
Some French harbor mixed feelings, and a few outright hatred, for Lance Armstrong. But many like him because he has made the Tour de France a truly international event followed by tourists from many nations. Perhaps there is a lesson here for both France and America: What was once strictly national can now survive and prosper only by appealing to a global audience. Openness, in the largest sense of the word, is the key.
The ethnocentric bluster of Jacques Chirac is the last thing France needs as it seeks to redefine for a new millennium the model of French style that originated with Louis XIV.