French values might be eternal, but French style is ever new. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity are about to get a makeover.
In the next two weeks, the country's 36,000 mayors will be voting to choose a new model for Marianne, symbol of La Rpublique, whose bust sits in every village, town, and city hall in France.
They are in search of a thoroughly modern Marianne for the new millennium, the mayors say, representing a "united, open, and tolerant society."
They will be choosing from a short list comprising an actress, a TV game show hostess, a model, a pop singer, and a television journalist. The Association of French Mayors, which is organizing the contest, says the finalists were selected for their "youth and dynamism."
They are all a far cry from Marianne's first incarnation as a sturdy warrior, in the wake of the French Revolution in 1789, defending liberty against monarchical tyranny.
"Born" by government decree in 1792 as a "figure of freedom and republican pride," she was quickly adopted by the French people and became a popular image, given a popular name at the time.
"There has never been an official Marianne," says Pierre Bonte, who has written two books on the subject. "She is an informal representation of an ideal - liberty - and of a regime - the French Republic."
Still, Marianne presides over every marriage performed in France, and over every municipal council meeting. Her image adorns postage stamps, coins, stationery, and government documents.
At my local mairie (town hall) in Paris's Fifth Arrondissment (district), they have two Mariannes. One is an austere bronze, with a fine nose and small mouth, staring sternly into the future. The other, in white marble, has a fuller face and a more maternal look about her, hair pulled up under her cap as if she were about to do the housework.
Whatever their facial features, it will be hard for any of the five new candidates to look very modern in the Phrygian cap - a pointed bonnet with a topknot - that every Marianne must wear as the classical symbol of freedom that French revolutionaries donned 200 years ago.
Well placed to fit another Marianne tradition is Laeticia Casta, the young actress who appeared in the recent film "Astrix and Oblix," and who is best known for the size of her bust.
Both of the Mariannes at my local mairie are well endowed. Mayor Jean-Charles Bardon says it is because "Marianne represents the motherland. She has to have what it takes to feed her children."
Also in the running is Estelle Hallyday, a model and daughter-in-law of France's only home grown rock 'n' roll star, Johnny Hallyday. Ms. Hallyday says she has hopes to represent "a modern, dynamic, and lively France, but one which does not forget its traditions, especially the family."
Nathalie Simon, a former French wind-surfing champion and now game- show hostess, pop singer Patricia Kaas, and Daniela Lumbroso, a journalist and TV producer, provide the rest of the competition.
It's been noted, however, that despite France's multiracial makeup, there are no women of color among the finalists.
The commercialized, showbiz nature of the lineup worries some French observers. "It's a good thing to update Marianne's image from time to time, to reflect French society and the evolution of the republic," says Mr. Bonte. "But you must not overdo it, or it becomes a publicity gimmick, and you sully her image. We should show respect."
Bonte should know: In 1985, he launched the first public competition for a new Marianne, to publicize a radio program he hosted at the time. That contest produced the current Marianne, modeled on the features of actress Catherine Deneuve.
Ms. Deneuve was uncontroversial, but the risks of putting a famous face on a national symbol became obvious when one of her predecessors, Brigitte Bardot, drifted into extreme right-wing politics. Left-wing mayors around the country put her away in their cupboards, and sought more neutral busts.
Politics, and notoriety, aside, one French mayor has simple criteria by which to choose a new symbol for his country: "She should be generous," says Jean-Louis Joichot, mayor of Gilly-sur-Loire, "and she should have a smile on her face."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society