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Last Updated: Sunday, 2 November, 2003, 13:22 GMT
Marianne challenges French elite
Hugh Schofield
By Hugh Schofield

A row has erupted in France over the choice of its new Marianne, the female figure who - since the revolution - has symbolised the republic.

Evelyne Thomas
Can France tolerate a TV queen as its Marianne?
In recent years, various stars such as Brigitte Bardot have been elected to be the model for Marianne.

But the new title-holder, Evelyne Thomas, is causing ructions - she is an afternoon television chat show host. The Paris intelligentsia is not amused.

I first became aware of Evelyne Thomas during occasional visits to a local sandwich bar.

The television was invariably on in a corner of the room, and customers sat at their tables with their eyes fixed on the screen - munching mechanically on their baguettes.

There was a studio, and a lot of guests on a bank of seats - two or three of whom had been selected to come down and talk to the presenter.

She is a pretty brunette with slightly angular features and a reassuring way with the microphone.

I forget what the subject was on that occasion, but it doesn't matter because it is always the same kind of nonsense:

How to get men in touch with their feminine side?

Tattoos: Mutilation or body art?

Affairs in the workplace: What would you do if your boss made a pass?

Madame Thomas handled the discussion with professional ease.

There were a few laughs, some confessions and a bit of earnest camera-gazing. And that was that.

She was the French Oprah Winfrey and I didn't give her another thought... until the other day. Because now she is the new Marianne - the symbol of France.

Lofty dignity

Born in the revolution two centuries ago, when the regicides needed a new emblem to replace the toppled crown, Marianne is the bare-breasted heroine of the painting in the Louvre by Eugene Delacroix - Liberty Guiding The People - charging the barricades at the head of a ragtag army.

She is the face that appears on postage stamps and many coins.

She is the bust that stands on tens of thousands of desks and mantelpieces in town halls across the country - conferring by the lofty dignity of her presence the authority of the republic on whatever business is being conducted.

Marianne in Eugene Delacroix's Liberty Guiding the People
Marianne is synonymous with French culture
She is a central figure in public life - and by tradition representatives of the country's 36,000 mayors (being the officials who have to look at her every day in their town halls) have chosen a well-known female personality to represent her.

Normally, it is someone they believe represents all the republican values of liberty etcetera, plus of course an element of physical beauty.

In the past, there has been Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and the models Ines de la Fressange and Laetitia Casta - all shining, uncontroversial exemplars of French womanhood.

And now - horror! - Evelyne Thomas, an afternoon TV chat-show host!

There are many in France - well, in Paris anyway - who believe this is a travesty.

Populist choice

Chat-show confessionals, they believe, are the quintessential tacky American import - the kind of thing that is the very antithesis of all France stands for.

And then Madame Thomas made matters worse.

In an interview for the television listings magazine VSD - itself not quite the proper forum for these guardians of the nation for whom a dense several thousand words in Le Monde Diplomatique would be more appropriate - she spoke of her feelings towards the three republican totems: Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.

Catherine Deneuve
Actress Catherine Deneuve was a previous Marianne
Liberty was fine, she said - especially freedom of speech.

Fraternity? Yes, that was all about justice and education.

But equality? No, the new Marianne did not believe in equality.

Equality in France meant trying to fit everyone into the same mould, she said.

It meant being unable to express your difference. And that was what her show - it is called It's My Choice - was all about: giving ordinary people, not the Paris intellectuals, the chance to speak and to be seen.

The guardians of the nation were horrified.

For them, Evelyne Thomas is not a proper Marianne. She is a populist choice foisted on the nation by a group of self-seeking mayors out for votes at the next election.

And, of course, that is the whole point. Of course, that is why the mayors chose Evelyne Thomas. They are no fools.

The same reasoning brought them to Brigitte Bardot and Laetitia Casta.

France, in actuality, is smoking Marlboro Lights - or perhaps Superkings - and watching awful telly
The mayors of France have their finger much closer on the pulse of the nation than the pontificators of the Left Bank - and they know that their friends, their neighbours are watching Madame Thomas and It's My Choice in their droves.

An average daily audience of two million in sandwich bars across the country - going up to five or six million for her specials.

It is the difference between France as it ought to be in the minds of a purist elite - and France as it actually is.

And as anyone who has travelled outside Paris will tell you, France as it actually is does not sit around in fashionable bistros smoking Gitanes and reading Le Monde Diplomatique.

France, in actuality, is smoking Marlboro Lights - or perhaps Superkings - and watching awful telly.

France galled by model move
03 Apr 00  |  Europe
Model choice for France
08 Oct 99  |  Europe

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