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Marianne who?


Looking for an icon

I have to say that I had trouble finding a “national icon” for France.  Looking at French history, several names come to mind: Jeanne d’Arc (but she is used in a political way by the far-right nowadays), Napoleon (but he was also a bit of a dictator), De Gaulle (but he’s closer to one political party), Jean Moulin (interesting person, but “icon” suggests that anyone would recognize him in France, and I fear it is not the case, even though his name is famous)… So I thought of finding an artist, instead: Molière, Beaumarchais, Hugo, Zola, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Delacroix, le Mime Marceau, etc… But they’re part of a classic culture which not everyone is familiar with. Should I find someone in pop culture, then? Actors like Jean Reno, Jamel Debbouze, Christian Clavier, Kad Merad or Audrey Tautou could have worked, but some of them are being forgotten, others are getting more politicized, and the rest can be liked and disliked by many people – they’re not exactly “national” icons. The closest we’d have to a “national icon”, among singers, would be Johnny Halliday, but once again, not everyone likes his songs, and he’s gotten a lot more politicized lately.

So who? How about an imaginary character? Asterix, the comic character, is quite famous, but one could argue that he’s not French: he’s Gaulish. So what character could represent France as a whole, and be immediately recognized? The best answer was right under my eyes. I was preparing my conversation class (FREN205) for next Tuesday on the theme of feminism and women in France, and there she was: “Marianne”, one of the official national emblems!


From the very first, Marianne was linked to the idea of freedom. During the French Revolution, representations of a woman siding with the people, against the King and his Lords, started appearing everywhere. She didn’t have a name at the time, but she wore a Phrygian cap, like the freed slaves in Ancient Greece, and was meant to symbolize the wisdom of the Greek philosophers. She also made the change very clear: as a woman among the people, she was the direct opposite of the man above the people, and she was used as a way to celebrate the end of the monarchy.

Her name, Marianne, actually illustrates her humble origins. “Marie” and “Anne” were two very common women names at the time, and could be combined as “Marie-Anne” among the nobility or as “Marianne” among the people. The name “Marie” also suggested motherhood and purity: Marianne was the pure, wise and free mother of the new French Republic!

Marianne became more and more present as time went on, and especially when freedom was at risk. During the Second Empire especially, her image was used as a way to protest against Napoleon III. The Emperor’s busts, which decorated every city hall back then, were replaced by her own busts and statues during the Third Republic. Ever since, busts of Marianne have stood in French city halls to represent the Republic, but their appearance changed a lot over the years.

During the Third Republic, she sometimes wore a crown instead of her Phrygian cap: the cap was thought to be too rebellious, and the crown symbolized wisdom and power. However, that radical change didn’t last very long and Marianne got her cap back in the 20th century. In 1968, as a huge part of the population turned against President De Gaulle and demonstrated for more liberties, Marianne once again stood for the people and for their dreams of freedom, her image being used by the demonstrators to remind everyone of the French Revolution.

The many faces of Marianne

After 1969, an association of Mayors were put in charge of choosing, on a regular basis, a famous French woman to embody the allegory of the Republic. As a result, the busts of Marianne in the city halls were modeled on the faces of singer and animal rights-activist Brigitte Bardot (1969-1978), singer Mireille Mathieu (1978-1985), actress Catherine Deneuve (1985-1989), model Inès de la Fressange (1989-2000), model Laetitia Casta (2000-2003) and TV host Evelyne Thomas (2003-2012).

Marianne, however, is not only a bust in a city hall. Her face and her Phrygian cap can also be found on stamps and on any official written communication by the government (like tax declarations, or paychecks if you work for the government, etc). She is also present on some French Euro coins!

Finally, you might have noticed a certain resemblance between Marianne and another feminine figure that stands for freedom in the world. The Statue of Liberty, offered to the United States of America in 1886, was partly modeled after her!

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