If there was ever a day to make this public admission, then it must be today. I am outing myself as an unashamed francophile. I have been speaking/learning French for more than 2/3 of my life. I’ve lived, travelled,camped, swam, skiied, biked and hiked all around that country, have made more humiliating French grammar mistakes than David Sedaris and suffered constant bloating from croissant and baguette overload (and in the process, cursed the French women who also ate them yet somehow all managed to look like Elle covergirls). Most importantly, French was the language which led me to meet my hubby. Maybe I was an escargot in a past life. Who knows.
So I thought that this was the perfect time to reflect a little on le quatorze juillet or Bastille Day and share with you some of my favourite dames.
Transport yourselves back to the 1780s: taxes were high, there was not enough food, money was tight and to top it all off, there was this crazy Princess telling everyone to eat cake!
222 years ago yesterday, masses stormed the Bastille in Paris, in anger at the wasteful ways of the absolute monarch Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette and the royal family.They got their just desserts when they were guillotined and France became a republic, following a period known as “the reign of terror”.
But the French revolution did more than liberate France from the ancien régime- it imbued the nation with a distinct revolutionary spirit, something very much still in the psyche of many French today. Sure, they do a lot of things that do not endear them to many people (mostly Anglo-speaking visitors) e.g striking, and ehem, not wanting to speak English in their own country. Republican ideals mean that there are huge social divisions between the French and those migrants from the former colonies (also wearing a hijab is banned in French public schools and universities due to the laïcité or secularity law) and President Sarkozy’s expulsion of Romanian gypsies in 2010 from the outskirts of Paris was terrible.
What I do value about the French, however,is that they stick up for what they believe in and relish a fight with the establishment. Did you know it is illegal in France for parents to open mail addressed to their child, once s/he turns 16? I tried to use this tactic on my dad when I came back from my French high school exchange programme as he had been intercepting (and reading!) letters from a secret admirer addressed to yours truly and he just looked at me blankly and said, “And so what?”.
Anyways, as the first country to have a declaration of the Rights of Man (yes, women were excluded) featuring the infamous ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ dictum, here are four femmes who for me stand out as embodying that unique french spirit of speaking out, embracing their individuality and also having that je ne sais quoi about them.
Olympe de Gouges was born in a working class family but took her place among the French intellectuals who were active during the French Revolution. She was a popular playwright and strongly advocated the rights of French women. When the Revolution was in full swing and following Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, Olympe was one of the few public figures to denounce him for this action. This act of moral courage meant it was off with her head on the guillotine.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel. Coutourier, arbiter of elegance, power networker, patron. This woman needs no introduction. Educated by nuns, she learnt her craft at the convent and her first foray into fashion was making hats, before she had an offer to design film costumes from the MGM boss who brought her to Hollywood in the early 1930s. The two most recent movies about her life, Coco avant Chanel before she became famous and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky about her love affair with the Russian composer, are visual delights. But nothing compares to the legend.
Simone de Beauvoir. To truly understand her contribution to not just the women’s movement in France in the post-war period, but also as leading philoshoper, try having a go at ‘Le deuxime Sexe’ (The Second Sex). I did for a whole semester for a French philosophy class at uni.This book was a watershed when it was published in France in 1949 as it sets out her feminist existentialism (philosophy where existence precedes essence) which in a nutshell, argued that “a woman is not born, but made”. It became the defining book of the twentieth century’s second wave of feminism. As the life long partner of fellow existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, when they first met, and the university results came out, Sartre was ranked first and de Beauvoir second. The two never married officially nor had children together but are buried side by side at Montparnasse cemetary.
Vanessa Paradis. As an innocent 14 year old, she shot to fame with her first song “Joe le taxi” (Joe the taxi driver). I first came across Vanessa when we used to listen to her music tapes (!) in my highschool french class. Madamoiselle Paradis’ unconventional beauty (she has a wide gap between her two front teeth) became her trademark. She sings about people she meets, love, comic situations. Wtty, smart and fun. As a longtime model for Chanel, she also starred in the hilarious 2010 movie arnacœur (Heartbreaker). And if that wasn’t enough, her heart belongs to Johnny Depp. Sigh.