“It was a surprise, it was completely unexpected. France has always acknowledged the women who fight. This is a symbol for the entire world.”
This is how Inna Shevchenko, leader and co-founder of the FEMEN feminist group, welcomed the introduction of a controversial new postage stamp in France, her new home since she fled her native Ukraine for political asylum, according to the Le Parisien newspaper.
The new French postage stamp, presented on Bastille Day by President Francois Hollande and available in all of the nation’s post offices, reportedly combines the physical and facial features of Shevchenko and Marianne, the mythical embodiment of the French Revolution and republic and its values as well as an allegory of liberty and reason. Marianne was made particularly famous after the artist Eugène Delacroix painted her bare-breasted in the painting “La Liberté Guidant Le Peuple” (“Liberty Leading the People”) in the Revolution of 1830.
The image on the stamp, co-created by French artist and gay-rights activist Olivier Ciappa and illustrator David Kowena, was also influenced by Renaissance art, French comic strips and even the graphic novels of Japanese manga. Ciappa told Agence France-Presse that he thinks Shevchenko is an appropriate model for the stamp since the mythical Marianne would have been a member of FEMEN if such an organization had existed in her time. (It is instructive to note that Shevchenko and her fellow FEMEN cohorts often bare their breasts during their well-orchestrated public protests).
"My ‘Marianne’ is one of several different women's faces, but the main inspiration was Inna Shevchenko,” Ciappa said. “As her struggle is a manifestation of French values" -- liberty, equality, fraternity.
Each new French president chooses a new image of Marianne to appear on stamps during his five-year term. But the choice of stamp this time was somewhat unusual as it was left to the discretion of a panel of high school students, who selected three designs. The final decision was made by Hollande. As the depiction of Marianne is more youthful than in her previous incarnations, Hollande said he wanted the stamp to reflect the promises he made to help the country’s younger generation. “I decided following my election that the republic's new stamp would have the face of youth, that it would be created by youth, and that it would be chosen by youth,” Hollande said.
To celebrate the new stamp, on its website FEMEN slightly altered France’s famous national motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” to “Liberté, Égalité, FEMEN.” FEMEN also said that the stamp reflects its “uncompromising struggle against patriarchy [and] aesthetics of ‘sextremism.’”
But not everyone is pleased with this manipulation of France’s national emblem. Christine Boutin, the former leader of the Christian Democratic Party -- a center-right party -- and a former minister under ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, has called for a boycott of the stamp, stating that the image provides a bad example to French youth and blamed Hollande. "[The stamp] is an affront to the dignity of women and the sovereignty of France," the Christian Democrat party said in a statement. A group called “French Spring” that opposes gay marriage tweeted: “Are there not enough beautiful and emblematic women in France that we have to import our models from Ukraine?"
For Hollande, already reeling from low opinion polls over the poor state of the economy, the stamp could prove to become yet another thorn in his side. An avowed supporter of same-sex marriage (or what the French call “le marriage pour tous” -- marriage for everybody), Hollande was booed during Sunday’s Bastille Day parade in Paris by conservatives and Catholics over his stances on social issues.