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Actually, it was no surprise to see French President Jacques Chirac’s beautifully crafted and thoughtfully written New Year’s greetings in the mailbox about a week ago. They come in faithfully every year with a neatly printed notice on the envelope noting that they’ve been sent by the President of the Republic and from the rue de la Boetie post office close to his Presidential residence in Paris, the Palais de l’Elysées.
My postman or postwoman, as the case may be, always is dutifully impressed. That’s the object of the exercise.
What they don’t realize–and few people do–is that all you have to do to receive such French presidential greetings is to drop Chirac a New Year’s note of your own (at the Elysées Palace, rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, 75008 Paris.) It can be a pre-printed card or a handwritten letter. Although you really should say something nice and seasonally oriented, you probably can say just about anything you want. The only essential thing is to note your return address carefully.
The President’s public-relations-oriented letter-answering team takes over from there and Voila!
A response is virtually guaranteed along with the establishment of a prestigious reputation at the
local post office.
President Chirac, to his credit, does his New Year’s greetings in style. A well-known fan of African and other primitive art, his cards the last three years have included, respectively, handsome illustrations of a small bronze turtle used in ancient times in the Ivory Coast as a scale weight for measuring quantities of gold dust, a 16th century bronze plaque from Benin featuring two male figures displaying
examples of the metal plates that served in their day as local currency and status symbols and, finally, a ceramic 19th century Congolese figurine of a stylish but nude African woman holding a cup.
His greetings on the card, certainly mass-produced but looking for all the world as if they were personally hand-written, are eloquent, vary each year but always center on several main themes: He is touched to have received your greetings and he warmly sends his to you and those close to you along with the hope that France and French ideals, along the lines of liberty, equality, fraternity, will continue in the coming year to play their important role in the world’s search for peace and a better life.
All this is part of a very stylized and hierarchy-conscious French cultural tradition attached to New Year’s greetings at all levels of society. Conscientious Americans try to get their "Merry Christmas, Happy New Year" cards in the mail to arrive before Santa does on December 25, and the focus, really, is more on Christmas with the New Year tacked on for good measure.
In France, however, despite the prevalence of Santa-Claus symbols and cards available, it’s the New Year, not Christmas, that gets the most attention. That’s why most French citizens don’t even start sending their New Year’s greetings before the beginning of January. And they’re well within the French social code if they get them to you or send them by January 31.
After that, well, even in France, it’s a bit late.
At both personal and official levels, most French don’t wait around though. They tend to get the job done without delay.
In general, in the days just after the new year, subordinates in the workplace dutifully call upon, call up or write to their superiors to transmit their best wishes for the coming year. Younger persons pass them on to their elders and neighbors and friends, of course, to one another.
French politicians, starting with the President himself, and then in descending order of hierarchy, hold numerous good-wishes meetings in the first weeks of January with various representative social groups
Usually they include business, industrial and trade union leaders as well as journalists, for sure. In addition, appropriate ministers who deal with them will hold such sessions with members of the diplomatic corps assigned to France.
All are extensively covered in the French press because whatever remarks are made officially at such gatherings are eagerly awaited and treated as news items.
French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, for instance, made headline news everywhere in France in early January when, at his good-wishes meeting, he spoke off hand about looking forward to next year’s such gathering.
Since his time in office has been plagued with speculation that he wouldn’t last much longer (although he has outlasted most of his predecessors), that indication that he wasn’t about to step down or be removed quite that quickly was enough to create a journalistic sensation for at least a day.
In any event, if you want to get in on the fun and get those greetings from President Chirac, you’ll have to hurry. Time’s almost up, although there’s always a chance for next year.
P.S. Less joyful note: I also wrote to President George W. Bush. But so far, no joy.
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