France acquires a new Marianne

The president of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, has just unveiled the new image of Marianne which will appear on French stamps from 2004.

It is the tradition that the Marianne drawn on the postage stamp changes with each new presidency. It is usually the president of the Republic who commissions the representation, but they have just opted for a new more democratic formula. The general public has been invited to choose, everyone had the right to vote for the Marianne of their choice – and the president finally decided from ten models pre-selected in this way.

The winning image, a Marianne styled in the form of a flower, was drawn by Thierry Lamouche, an illustrator who comes from Paris.

But who then is this Marianne who has become the symbol of the French Republic. To know more about it, we met a historian specialised in this matter, Daniel Courant, of the museum of the town of Niort.

You must know that in France there is no law which obliges even a mayor or even a district governor, not to mention a school to have the Marianne on its walls then. It is all at the discretion of the local politicians. But in the majority of cases all the town halls possess a Marianne, possessing a Marianne who has many faces: there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Mariannes which exist in France.

The idea in itself takes us back to the end of the 18th century to a time then post-revolutionary. Until the French revolution the symbols or the symbolic representation of France were the royalty then of course, it was the king and the queen. After the revolution it was very necessary that the iconographists look for and find a symbol which represents France more easily and so we know now that the iconographists had under their eyes works published in the 17th, 18th century which represent traditional iconography of several countries. So they drew their inspiration from these works and they found that the woman has always been a carrier of, first of all formal beauty it is true, principally a carrier of freedom since at least Gallic-Roman times.

Marianne is the contraction of two christian names: Marie, Anne. We know nowadays that for many years this was one of the christian names most used, most used when there was a daughter in a home. So, already the christian name was very widely spread in France at that time.

We never represent Marianne, I was going to say of a certain age, with a tired appearance who is 50 or 60 years old. It is always a young woman who like the Republic from its birth, that is to say an ideological change, a political change, and it was necessary that it be represented by youth. The second thing is that this Marianne is often dressed in revolutionary symbols. That is to say revolutionary symbols which themselves go back to antiquity. They are principally the Phrygian[1] bonnet, there is sometimes the classical roman clothes, that is to say then symbols which we find again in ancient times, and then there were more contemporary symbols for example the cockade[2], the cockade with the tricolour[3] which we find sometimes in her hair. She is sometimes in the same way dressed in a sort of breast plate of oyster shells as we have found again in people of antiquity. She can be similarly… she can sport the muzzle of a lion, symbol of power and protection.

If today, the republican path of France seems assured, in the 19th century that was far from being the case. It is especially at that time that the image of Marianne took on importance as the personification of the federation around the idea of the Republic.

Then there was the restoration, then followed the Empire at home starting with Napoleon III… so that was a Marianne who was born and died. And so we have the images, there were several representations which were hidden in some places, they had not systematically destroyed them but they had put them in the cupboard for example, hundreds and hundreds of Mariannes saying that one day perhaps a real republic would be established. Marianne had her moment of glory starting in the Third Republic. And that was important at the time at the end of the 19th century for the French women and the French men who were becoming used to seeing themselves as part of a republican regime.

All that has lost its meaning. Because it would seem that now we are in the Fifth Republic and there is not – it is not even a danger – but we do not think at all about a return to monarchy. So this idea which was very strong at the end of the 19th century of the representation, now it has become banal.

Today we find Marianne everywhere.

On the level of the law for example, an official notice board or the name plate of a notaire[4] is a place where you can see the representation of Marianne of the Republic. Our election card in France has a copy of the image of Marianne. So if you like, it a representation which is a true part of our everyday experience. Our coins today have the image of Marianne. So all that makes it a part of our collective memory, the French memory, where we were obliged to see in this image a very republican symbol.

And not simply France. Many countries which have lived through their own revolutions such as Argentina and Venezuela, have adopted Marianne as a symbol of their republic.

There are a large number of countries whose symbol… – which is not called Marianne – but it is our very own French Marianne who then served as a model for the symbol of these countries where there have been effectively revolutions even in the 19th or even in the 20th centuries.

In France there are competitions regularly to elect a famous woman who lends her appearance to the new Marianne. We are far from the anonymity of the 19th century, when often…

… the models for these Mariannes were the wives of painters or sculptors who were perfect nobodies. In the 20th century we witness what I have called the “starification” of Marianne. I’m sure that the first woman who accepted giving her feminine appearance for posterity was Coco Channel. And then especially from the 1960s it was Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Ines de la Fressange, Laetitia Casta, so they tried a little to modernise these Mariannes.

The irony, according to M Courant is that in wanting to be more modern, we have become something closer to the old regime of the monarchy than to the republican spirit of Marianne.

We find that we have come back to the end of the 18th century when we have personalised the image. The French people used to meet the physical image of the king or the queen, now this system does not exist any longer, but we see, well even in our democracy, we can find again evidence of the end of the former regime when France was finally represented by a very well known, much publicised person. So we have come back somewhere to portraying as in the 18th century, the representation of Marianne.

And at the same time we have witnessed the commercialisation of the idea of Marianne.

Finally it became a publicity object. It was on glasses, on posters, on boxes of matches, on andirons[5] in the chimney, so Marianne became no longer an image which we used to see in the town hall but became part of the everyday of people inside their homes. That is to say then it is also a gradual change if you like that Marianne was no longer only displayed in public places, official places, but became an object which they were buying for personal decoration.

This story, rich in sudden developments, makes happiness for the collectors and wherever you may be in France you have the chance to fall on little treasures which remind you of the beautiful Marianne.

There were Mariannes which were worn out over time which sometimes were damaged, and it happened that sometimes the elected people, some mayors, wanted another Marianne bought and so the old ones were put back in the loft where they slept peacefully and sometimes we can find in a town hall, one, two, three, four, five Mariannes.

[1] Phrygian – Ancient kingdom of Midas

[2] Cockade – Badge of military office

[3] Tricolour – Red, white and blue colours of the French Republic

[4] Notaire – Lawyer who represents the French Republic

[5] Andiron – Safety device on open fire places in the home

$Id: 2004_07_act.htm 35 2021-02-12 12:17:35Z alistair $

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