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Los Angeles, Je t'aime : The French Have Their Ways. And Currently They're Having Their Way With California Culture

October 20, 1985|Heidi Yorkshire | Heidi Yorkshire, a native of Los Angeles, lived in Paris from 1979 to 1982

Any Saturday, about the time that Angelenos are sitting down to their morning croissants and cafe au lait , a few hundred thousand Parisians are tuning their radios to "Hollywood Music," a program on Radio RFM, one of the largest commercial stations in France. Starting off in English with "Well, well, well, here we go again," deejay Laurence Boccolini switches into hip Franglais for an hour of pop music, interviews and news exclusively from the City of the Angels.

Her broadcasts have included reports on the Shangri-La Hotel in Santa Monica, rent-a-Rolls agencies, Gene Autry's Western-style office and a movie special-effects man. Sometimes, she will simply play minutes-long stretches of radio broadcasts, including commercials, recorded verbatim in Los Angeles, which fascinate French listeners, even--or especially--those who understand very little English.

Once, New York was the American city Parisians loved most, but these days Los Angeles is their infatuation. A recent article in the news magazine L'Express was typical of the French media's exalted view of Los Angeles. The writer praised our "heart-shaped, turquoise swimming pools" and "the blond beaches of the Pacific." True, these rhapsodies can occasionally be somewhat inaccurate: In the same article, L'Express suggested taking a drive from Malibu to Laguna Beach "by way of Venice and Palm Spring (sic). "

A few years back, some smart American entrepreneur discovered that putting the French article le in front of any English word was a way to make a profit on the American fascination with things French. The word California is now used to similar effect in France. Take the Galleries Lafayette department-store chain's summer ad campaign: Throughout an often chilly and dismal late spring, Parisians descending into the subway were confronted with a row of 20-foot-high posters featuring a sun-bronzed young couple and a toddler, all in bright aloha shirts, reclining on the hood of a pink Cadillac. The headline above them announced a "California Summer," an optimistic prediction.

"California has become stylish in the last few years," says Anne-Claude Villemin, account executive for the "California Summer" campaign at Publicis Conseil, France's largest commercial advertising agency. "Aerobics were very strong for a while, and that's when we really began to talk about California."

And although aerobics classes are no longer the fad they once were in Paris--"The French just don't want to sweat," concludes Mary Ann Schaefer, a Southern Californian who worked as an aerobics instructor there-- le musculation , or body building, is gaining momentum as an exercise trend. One of the most popular television shows in France remains "Gym Tonic," a Sunday morning, half-hour, Jane Fonda-style workout, and many French health professionals credit the growing interest in fitness to the California influence. Not that all Parisians like to talk about it--"I jog every weekend, but I don't want anyone to know," a prominent lawyer confides.

The fitness craze and the '84 Summer Olympics focused the attention of the French on Los Angeles, and they have since discovered the other charms of the West Coast. "L.A. provides us with a vision of the future," says Jean-Pascal Billaud, editor-in-chief of City, a glossy travel and cultural magazine published in Paris and distributed internationally. It's the adventurous image--the Far West, the ultimate, the end of the occidental world."

The magazine profiles different cities of the world each month; Los Angeles is one of the select few included in every issue. Its readers tend to fall into the small, well-traveled group of French cognoscenti that calls Los Angeles "El Lay" and competes in one-upmanship games, such as where to find the best burrito in Boyle Heights. However, for many of the French, enthusiasm for Los Angeles is tempered by the knowledge that the Southern California life style and personality are polar opposites of the Parisian.

"L.A. is a sort of volcano of activity because people take risks; they don't have the cultural weight on them that we have in Europe," says Alice Morgaine, editor of the influential fashion magazine Jardin des Modes. "We Europeans hold ourselves back. We have too much restraint. You dare. We admire your daring, but we don't dare." Richard Cooper, an American who has lived for years in Paris, adds: "The French have a love-hate relationship with California. They're fascinated but they deny it because imitation implies cultural inferiority."

When they actually arrive, however, "all French people hate L.A.," Parisian Jean Gremion asserts. "They like the dream but they hate the reality. They think of Hollywood like Lourdes or the Vatican, and they are quite surprised when they get there."

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