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Commentary: Why "Porno Chic" Is Riling the French


By Stephen Baker and Christina White

Nudity's nothing new, at least in Paris. But check out the billboards in the M?tro or along the Boulevard des Italiens, and you see the traditional flesh-happy advertisements taking a more provocative turn. Posted on bus shelters throughout the city is Yves St. Laurent's ghostly white naked woman, caressing herself into a state of ecstasy. She's selling perfume. Other ads feature women who are bruised, bullied, even consorting with animals. One recent billboard for the fashion house La City showed a woman, wearing only underpants, suggestively posed on all fours next to a sheep.

A SHRUG? It's all part of a marketing push known in France as porno chic. You would think the people who gave the world the Marquis de Sade and the Folies Berg?res would greet these ads with a shrug. But porno chic appears to be ruffling even the famously tolerant French. A government poll finds that 70% of the French are "more shocked than ever" by the new sexual ads, and two-thirds find at least some of them objectionable.

With polling numbers like that, it was just a matter of time before the French state weighed in. On July 12, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government released a report decrying ads that "degrade and humiliate" women. The authors of the report recommend amending France's 120-year-old press-freedom law, which already outlaws race, religious, and gender bigotry, to prohibit images degrading women. "Nude women in advertising don't pose any problem," says Brigitte Gr?sy, an official in the Employment Ministry and coauthor of the report. "It's the violence and degradation that offends people."

Is this electoral posturing for women's votes, as critics claim? Naturally, there's a bit of that. The presidential vote is only nine months away. But Jospin's push makes sense for society, not only in France but around the world. Marketers, led by the luxury houses, find themselves in a race to establish bold and sexy brands. This is awfully hard to pull off in places like France, where even the anti-cellulite ads in pharmacy windows feature glamorous photos of naked models. The marketplace is so crowded with beautiful bodies--most of them female--that it pushes innovators to branch out into the morally questionable world of porno chic and beyond.

The result not only degrades women but also undermines their struggle for fair treatment. By releasing the report and threatening legislation that would make advertisers more vulnerable to legal challenges, the French government is attempting to set limits. Enfin.

And who better to draw this line than the French? Unlike the Americans, the French are no one's idea of prudes. What's more, as home to many luxury businesses, from Christian Dior to Guerlain, they're addressing their own industry. The world's trendsetting fashion marketers may get the message a lot sooner to clean up their act if they are warned by the worldly French.

And while Jospin's secretary of state for women's rights, Nicole P?ry, has called for the press-law amendments, the Prime Minister is likely to avoid such legal tinkering. That's a smart move, too: Smothering the press for running the ads looks dangerously like an invitation to curb a vital civil liberty. "They don't want to open up the press law for 10,000 lobbies right before the election," says Jacques Bille, vice-president of France's Association of Public Relations Agencies. It makes more sense for Jospin simply to voice the warning and rely on the government's powers of moral suasion.

The French public could help by rousing itself to action. Although France has no tradition of consumer activism, the authors of the government report are urging citizens to sue advertisers and publishers if their messages and billboards degrade women. Sounds downright American. Of course, even as they take their first steps against porno chic, the French aren't likely to stop selling and celebrating sex. But a soup?on of moral outrage may do France, and the world, some good. Baker and White cover European business and society from Paris.


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