Le Dîner d’État, a Tool of French Soft Power

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Le Dîner d’État, a Tool of French Soft Power
Powerful rulers have hosted lavish dinners since time immemorial, as a way to demonstrate their power and to forge alliances. But does anyone do it as well as the French, with their state dinners in the glittering Elysée Palace? A Bit of History King Louis XIV set the tone when he made eating a public spectacle. Every day, crowds would gather to watch the royal family enjoy a sumptuous meal, the Grand Couvert. It was a way for the Sun King, Europe’s top dog, to make a daily demonstration of his wealth and power. His descendants continued the tradition until it, like they, died out. Satirical drawing of a Grand Couvert. © French Revolution Digital Archive, Stanford University Libraries & the Bibliothèque Nationale de France A century later, the “art of the table” is credited with maintaining French power after the defeat of Napoleon. When the victors met at the Congress of Vienna to carve up Europe, French representative Talleyrand hosted lavish meals for the delegates, night after night. Many believe that these led to France’s remarkably lenient treatment. Official French state dinners — dîners d’État — began in the 1870s under the presidents of the Third Republic. What better way to seduce a potential ally than by plying them with fine French food and wine? Unfortunately, considerable stamina was required, as those 19th-century meals could last for hours and include up to 20 different courses. President Macmahon steels himself for a dîner d’État. © Official portrait, Pierre Petit photographe, public domain By the time of World War I, reason had prevailed and the number of courses had dropped to seven. They dropped further in the 1950s when the austere Charles de Gaulle became president, as he cut them to five courses and limited the meal to an hour and 15 minutes. De Gaulle was followed by Pompidou, who was a bon vivant and loved fancy dinners. Not only did he host state dinners at the Elysée Palace, he also took fine French dining with him when he traveled. He would load his plane with chefs and elegant tableware, then host dinners at the French embassies of the countries he visited. Despite Pompidou’s enthusiasm, dîners d’État have continued to get shorter, with President Hollande cutting them to their current length of one hour (four courses). And they have become less frequent. While presidents in the 1960s and 1970s hosted state dinners nearly six times a year, recent presidents have averaged less than two. A Strict Protocol Dîners d’État are part of what the French call gastrodiplomie (gastronomic diplomacy), a kind of French soft power, and must display the glories of France. Held in the Salles des Fêtes of the Elysée Palace (or occasionally at the Grand Trianon of Versailles), they use dishes and silverware from the finest French artisans. Dishes are made by Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, France’s top porcelain maker, with some elegant pieces from the 19th century still in use. Crystal is provided by Saint-Louis and, of course, Baccarat. Silverware is made by Christofle and Puiforcat, and stamped with the Republique Française coat of arms. And the Elysée kitchen still uses some of the fine copper cookware made over 200 years ago.
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Lead photo credit : The Salle des fêtes at the Élysée Palace. Photo credit: Chatsam/ Wikimedia Commons

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Keith Van Sickle is a lifelong traveler who splits his time between California and Provence. He is the author of the best-sellers "One Sip at a Time" and "Are We French Yet?", both available from Amazon. His new guidebook, "An Insider’s Guide to Provence", will be released in autumn 2021. Keith’s observations on life in France can be found on his website: https://keithvansickle.com/