On the white-tiled walls of Paris metro stations there used to be large billboards showing three downcast ladies wearing red bonnets, white blouses, and blue skirts; one lady already half off the billboard, the others walking behind her in the same direction. The caption read: REPUBLICS PASS, BUT RIPOLIN PAINT REMAINS.
The ladies were Marianne, stalwart symbol of five republics. That France should have a woman to embody its form of government is paradoxical, since under the Napoleonic code, women were second-class citizens, and they were not granted the right to vote until 1944. Only since 1965 has a married Frenchwoman been able to open a bank account without the permission of her husband, and only since 1975 have abortions been legal. And yet Marianne is neither a comic figure, like John Bull, nor a senior citizen, like Uncle Sam. She is eternally young and purposeful. As Jules Michelet, the greatest of all French historians, explained it, France had to be a woman because of the menstrual cycle. Woman, like the nation, was ever changing and bound up with time. Woman, like the people, was a creature of instinct, close to the land and elements. Only a woman could portray France as a country with a mission to civilize the world.
With the rise of the actor in public life, Marianne was given the recognizable features of France's best-known movie stars, starting with Brigitte Bardot.
But when Bardot retired a new face was needed, and in 1985 a radio station asked its listeners to pick a Marianne from the eight most famous and desirable women in France. The winner was Catherine Deneuve, who came in ahead of Isabelle Adjani by a narrow margin to lend her classic features to the plaster busts that decorate France's thirty-six thousand town halls. It's not a bad concession, but Madame Deneuve donated her royalties to Amnesty International, not wanting to mix civic duty and profit. It seemed to me that Deneuve was a right choice and my personal favorite. She has what her former husband, David Bailey described as, "witty legs." Marianne is, after all, a type, a composite meant to exemplify those traits particular to French women, and in this respect Deneuve fit the bill.
She is that "woman of iron and velvet," able to strike the right balance between emotion and reason. She has that practical, concrete side that comes down in direct line from Madame de Sevigne, who wrote: "We make love like animals, but a bit better." She seems a direct descendant of Colette and Coco Chanel, with whom she shares a highly disciplined professional life combined with an unconventional personal life, and of the magisterial caissieres, those agate-eyed, impassive women who sit behind the cash registers in French shops and restaurants, presiding over the flow of money.
Yes, here indeed was a fitting Marianne, rising above her own circumstances to proclaim the three main virtues of the Republic, travail, famille, patrie (work, family, nation). When the owner comes to collect his car at the garage after repairs he's told "it's been remedied, sir." And that's the overall impression that Catherine Deneuve conveys a woman who has "remedied" herself, who has constantly worked on herself, developing from the "passive love-prone" young girl on the screen to a strong and independent woman, decisive and stubborn, achieving self-control perhaps at the cost of some spontaneity.
The Republics may pass, but like Ripolin paint, Catherine Deneuve will remain.