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Six

The Scent of a Nation

Vive Pepé LePew!


The French are stylish, urbane and sophisticated; their country is the home of haute couture and the laboratory of famous perfumes. So why are they held in such bad odour around the world?


In 1791 the royal family fled Paris pursued by revolutionary troopers. Disguised as commoners, their coach got as far Varennes. Legend has it they were betrayed by a female goose-seller in the marketplace who noticed that Marie Antoinette smelled of heavenly Houbigant scent rather than of dead meat, urine and tobacco like most of her customers.

The French have always had an easy and even affectionate relationship with the gasses emerging from their various orifices. The writer Rabelais celebrated the windy farts of the priests in the sixteenth century while the Duke de Villeroi congratulated his men on the “strength of their goatish essences” before the battle of Ramillies (1706). Emile Zola, one of France’s most pungent social commentators, declared on his deathbed that his greatest achievement was to have captured the “complete smell of France”. (Ironically, Zola died of accidental asphyxiation, though of coal gas rather than anyone he knew.)

That same smell has often horrified France’s more fastidious Anglo-Saxon and German neighbours. In 1798, readers of the Times of London recoiled in disgust as they read a two-line love letter from Napoleon seized by the ships of Admiral Nelson on its way to Josephine. It read: “Returning in three days. Don’t wash.”

Today, unforgiving foreigners still wrinkle their noses at the olfactory tolerance of the French. The usually internationalist Economist magazine can still write without fear of contradiction that “the otherwise sophisticated French have long had a reputation for a certain blithe disregard for personal odours” while established travel and expat websites feel it necessary to warn travellers about “That Smell”.

“My first impression of France was not the best”, writes Kelby Carr, travel writer and journalist for Gofrance.com, “We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle, and hopped onto the shuttle bus into the city. And it hit me like a sledgehammer. That smell of body odour. Whoa! I don't know who sat in the seat before me (or when he or she last discovered the marvels of soap and water), but it almost made my eyes water. Fortunately, this situation seems to have improved. After all, the French have some of the best soap in the world. I guess they are starting to use it. But you will still run into some unpleasant smells.”

It wasn’t always like this. "In the Middle Ages in France, cleanliness was paramount”, says Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, a specialist at the School for Higher Studies in Social Sciences in Paris. ”Using water on the body was seen as a source of cleanliness and purity –literally as well as religiously.” 

Manuscripts at the Louvre bear witness to the multitude of recipes for shampoos, soaps, toothpastes and depilatory creams. All-over hair removal caught on – for both sexes – after returning Crusaders brought the idea back from the Middle East. The wife of one French king, Eleanor of Aquitaine, is credited with inventing dental floss though she later defected to the English.

"It was only much later that a different mentality arrived which feared exposure to air and water, and believed the body's goodness had to be heavily protected from outside elements”, adds Alexandre-Bidon.

By the time of Louis XIV, French high society had rejected bathing wholesale. This was not surprising given the unsanitary quality of Grand Siécle water supplies which were believed to propagate disease. The Memoires (1691-1709) of the Duc de Saint-Simon recount the general filthiness of life at the giant palace of Versailles where the nobility, despite three-foot-high wigs and embroidered brocade, were crawling with lice and, rather than walk two miles to the nearest bathroom, would piss on the wall in one of the king’s corridors. Instead of a bath to remove bodily odours, it became common practice to disguise them with perfume. It was around this time that France established its world-leading scent industries. 

Following the Sun King’s example, the French became legendarily open-minded to their personal cleanliness. This tradition has lasted for centuries and, on the verge of the 2000 millennium, Le Figaro newspaper sensationally published a double-page report on the nation’s personal hygiene drawing on sources ranging from the Federation of Perfume Industries to the government-supported Health Education Committee. The report found:


  • 40% of French men, and 25% of women, do not change their underwear daily. 
  • Fully 50% of men, and 30% of women, do not use deodorant.
  • 96% of the French live in homes equipped with showers or baths, even more than those with bidets. But only 47% bathe every day (compared to 80% of those squeaky clean Dutch and even 70% of the British).
  • The average Frenchman uses 1.3 pounds of soap a year compared to 3 pounds used by the average Briton and 2 pounds by the average German.
  • 85% of Frenchmen wash their hands before a meal but only 60% after using the bathroom. 6% never washed their hands at all. (Le Figaro suggested respondents were lying since, if their claims were true, France’s annual soap consumption should be at least 2 pounds per person.)
  • 67% of French respondents said they brushed their teeth twice a day. (Le Figaro did the math there too. If the figure were true, sales of toothpaste should be more than 240 million tubes a year, and not the current 198.5 million.) 
  • The report featured many anecdotes about the basic realities of French hygiene. "One is shaken to observe that even in the higher classes, bodily hygiene leaves a great deal to be desired," a French doctor told the magazine. "When I discuss this with my colleagues, they all report daily incidences of dubious underwear and powerful odours."


Le Figaro cited experts who concluded that "more than one French person in two does not respect elementary rules of body hygiene”.

That survey was concluded five years ago, the same year that the US cable channel Cartoon Network banned the showing of any more of the old Warner Brothers’ Pepé Le Pew cartoons in case the amorous but odorous skunk caused offence in its Francophone markets. And yet in 2005 the magazine Le Point revisited the subject of French hygiene and found to its nose-wrinkling horror:

“Only one in 10 of the population regularly uses soap, while almost one in 25 admit that they never shower or bath, and one in 33 say they never brush their teeth. No wonder, perhaps, that nine out of 10 French women and half of all French men apply perfume and cosmetics every day, spending €17.7million between them. The French do spend long periods in the bathroom: between 48 and 56 minutes each day, according to the figures. Yet much of this is apparently devoted to pursuits other than cleanliness. While in there, one third say they read and one quarter that they daydream. A further 14% make telephone calls, eight per cent sing, six per cent smoke – and one in 100 eats”.

As Pepé would have said: “Le sigh”.


EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA….EXTRA


Breathe My Secret Substance: “When we smell another's body, it is that body that we are breathing in through our mouth and nose, that we possess instantly, as it were in its most secret substance, its own nature. Once inhaled, the smell is the fusion of the other's body and my own.” Jean-Paul Sartre, writer, philosopher, lover and notoriously smelly man.


An American In Paris: "Paris was cool 'cause I had never been to Europe... Me and my manager go to this club. So I'm looking at the girls, and the girls are looking at me, but every time I step on the dance floor the odour burned my retina. It was singeing the hair out of my nose! It was the first time I went to a club and as a parting gift, they were giving out deodorant at the door – I cross my heart! And the street (outside of the club) was full of deodorant 'cause all the cats... didn't know what to do (with it)." Anthony Mackie, actor GQ magazine (2004) interview.


Vive Pepé LePew: “He’s great. He’s a romantic. He’s a wit. He’s misunderstood. He’s imperturbable. He’s persistent. He’s the world’s greatest lover. What else could he be but French? So of course, he had to be a skunk”. Chuck Jones, creator of Warner Bros. Much loved but visibly odorous cartoon character, Pepé LePew.

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