Sometimes you can sum up an entire country in an object. I've picked two that, for me, say an awful lot about France. These are:
- The Citroen Deux Chevaux, and
- the Duralex 'Picardie' glass.
Duralex. A classic but modern design. It came out at a time when other countries' glassmakers were all trying to make pseudo-'crystal' glassware, that looked like it came from a Victorian brothel. This is uncompromising modernity. But the elegant curves prevent it feeling brutal or cold.
Economical. This is a glass everyone could afford to have in their kitchen. Let me refer to the principle of égalité: the equality of citizens in France isn't just about 'equal before the law', it goes further than that. It's about schools that ensure everyone has the same basic cultural references, about cheap restaurants offering good, solid French cuisine for a working man's (or woman's) lunch. Getting good design for a few francs - that's practical equality.
Tough. This is good industrial design too. Not always a given in France - French gardening tools always disappoint me (except their pruning saws and mushroom picking knives, which are fantastic) and most door handles these days are rubbish. But this is a tough, reliable, quality item. (I don't rely on it to bounce if I drop it on the floor... but I have dropped one, and it did bounce.)
...égalité again. When the British made a car for the masses, it was the Mini. A design classic, but look at the subtext; a car you have to get down into. A shrunken car. A car in which you drive along with your bum only a few inches above the tarmac, while Milord in his Bentley can look down at you from a great height. A car which, I'm afraid, is cramped and uncomfortable. "You get what you pay for," say the Brits, albeit the Mini does look very cute in The Italian Job (original version, which if you haven't seen, you should).
But the 2CV commands the road. It has space. Enough for two sheep in the back, someone told me once. You don't give way to the big black Traction Avant, you look it in the face.
Liberté too. Why stay on the road when the 2CV's suspension lets you go down a green lane or a field track? I asked French friends whether the story about the 2CV being designed to carry a box of eggs on the back seat down a bumpy farm track without breaking any was true, and they all said 'yes'.
And the design. Again, striking, and again with some lovely curves. Robust.
Most French people these days use drinking glasses from Ikea - though a couple of years ago one supermarket had a special offer of coloured Duralex glasses and they proved quite popular. And if they drive a Citroen, it will be a Berlingo or a C4 Spacetourer.
But these icons are part of France at a deep level. And they illustrate something about the country and its values.