Maybe images of Jacques Anquetil winning the Tour de France left a deep impression on a young boy’s mind. The rider, who was the embodiment of sophistication and suave modernity, would have been pictured in monochrome in the sports pages of 1960s newspapers. Maybe fashion photographs in the magazines were responsible for the assumption. Maybe films set against Cote d’Azur scenery, with yachts and diamonds and alluring voices, shaped conclusions. Whatever the cause, deep within the subconscious grew a belief that France meant style.
As we sat at traffic lights in a Northern French town in July this year, a trio of police officers stood watching the road, standing beside their motorcycles. The simple uniform of pale blue polo shirts, navy blue trousers and high black boots seemed to take on a different quality. It would sound strange to suggest that policemen could look elegant, but they did. A friend suggested that it was a matter of the clothes being well cut. The Gendarmerie Nationale has obviously an eye to its appearance.
Why was it that France gained a place in the consciousness as meaning style and sophistication? Perhaps it was because after the Second World War they moved quickly to escape from the drabness of austerity, even if one of Christian Dior’s photo shoots in a Paris market prompted a violent reaction from the traders who had endured years of hardship. Perhaps it was because, in the mind of a schoolboy, France was the embodiment of the risqué. Perhaps it was just that France was foreign, and being our nearest neighbour was our first encounter with language and culture differing from our own.
Chiefly, though, the images of France that shaped boyhood and teenage thoughts were the black and white photographs. The people who looked at the lens seemed to occupy not just another country, but another planet. The street scenes showed towns and cities unmarked by wartime bombing or heavy industrial decay. Everyday life seemed to have a different quality; three men pictured sitting at a table outside a café enjoying an evening glass of Anis created an image very different from that of three men standing in a pub drinking pints.
Perhaps it’s all a matter of presentation, France, being more image conscious, seeks to portray itself in a particular light. Perhaps the differences between it and other countries are not so great; perhaps it is all a matter of appearance rather than one of substance; perhaps it is about the sort of confidence that dresses even policemen in a stylish way. Whatever it is, you can’t help notice it.