So Long, Marianne
The stories that countries tell about themselves are rife with half-truths, propped up with fetishistic elements that speak in a special code to the initiated. Americans have the Liberty Bell, Mount Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty, the Declaration of Independence, and so on. Canadians have.. hmm, actually we Canucks don't have anything in that line, which in itself is a central element of our national character, but I'll save that for another blog. The focus this time out is on the French, who have a complicated history marked by Kings and Church, the French Revolution, Napoleon and recent events of a more or less unfortunate nature, all of which has become part of the myth of France.
A surprisingly durable element of this myth is that of Marianne, a fictional character who quickly came to embody the spirit of the French revolution, with the name apparently having been taken from a revolutionary song from the South of France. Representations of Marianne soon started popping up all over the place, increasingly laden with a mixture of revolutionary, Greco-Roman and Masonic symbolism. Perhaps the most familiar manifestations of the cult of Marianne is the tableau of Liberty Guiding the People, painted by Eugène Delacroix during the July Revolution of 1830. This image, shown above, has become so embedded in the French psyche that it was employed until recently on French currency and stamps.
But Marianne's reach extends far beyond this. Rare is the small town city hall or school not hosting a bust of her, a practice that goes back more than 100 years. Marianne got a new lease on life when Brigitte Bardot was chosen to be the model for the official version in the 60's, followed by various models and actresses, until this descended into the realm of the banal with the choice of a TV show host for the most recent iteration in 2003. Marianne is also ubiquitous in France thanks to the Federal government having adopted the design above, which is used in conjunction with anything representing the state. Here she still incarnates the values of the Republic, with the same in-motion hair and revolutionary-era Phrygian cap as depicted by Delécroix and those before him. Which brings us to the matter at hand.
As you probably know, countries for which tourism is a significant industry are keen to attract more wallets. In recent years, this has led to countries developing brand identities, which they include in their efforts to seduce potential visitors. It turns out that France was one of the last exceptions, surprising given that it remains the top global tourist destination. So last week the tourism minister proudly rolled out the graphical mark that is to incarnate the idea of France for foreigners and thereby convince Mr. and Mrs. SixPack to hop on a plane and see the Eiffel Tower before they die.
My first reaction to the logo at the top of this entry was one of horror. In fact, that was also my second reaction. Initially, my eyes bugged out like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon because the logo was just so massively mediocre. Okay, head of a young woman, some red thing next to her face (hair, supposedly), the word France in virtually illegible lettering, a pointless star shape (starfish?) and something about a rendez-vous. Design-by-committee work at its most mundane. Sad, but I could live with it. But then I looked a little closer and I was horrified all over again. Go ahead, take another look.
That's right, the letters in France are bent out of shape for a very good reason. There she is, in all her tragic former glory, an empty echo of the once-proud symbol of the French Republic, of those who fought and died for principles they held dear, which many still hold dear. Reduced to a bare-breasted come-on, a sleazy nod and a wink, worthy of some dubious vendor of dirty postcards in Pigalle.
Andy Warhol is clearly to blame (as he is for so much), having legitimized the transformation of revolutionary figures into products with his famous silkscreens of Chairman Mao. Che Guevara is probably the most notorious victim of this, with that poignant image of him as youthful revolutionary now put to work flogging just about any piece of junk imaginable. And now it's poor Marianne's turn to make the cash registers ring. Of course, it's all for nothing in this case, since her myth is unknown to most outside France. Those who parse the logo will just see a naked young girl (Hey, honey, let's go to France this summer, there are naked women wandering the streets!).
Sadly, this is simply one more manifestation of the profound contempt that those running things in the West have of anyone holding any kind of belief in what's socially right and important. Something the French themselves, in a more enlightened era, once brilliantly summed up as: Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood. To which now has apparently been added: Marketing.