Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Distillers of Venom

France in the inter-war years had more than its share of vociferous extremists of the right fanatically dedicated to the destruction of the Third Republic and to violent anti-Semitism. Many of them were collaborators in waiting whose day finally dawned in July 1940 when France was occupied by the Wehrmacht. Industrial unrest in the Thirties led to obsessive anti-Communism in the French business community and many of them gave generous financial support to fascist groups. Carmen Callil, in her book, Bad Faith, names three in particular who went further than others in their devotion to the cause. All remain active today as global brands and it’s the brand that most assiduously promotes itself to the public that has the most to answer for. It is little comfort to know that we can continue to enjoy all these wonderful products despite the deep stain that saturates their hidden history.

What unites these three businesses, other than politics, is a shared dependence on the process of distillation. One was a producer of alcoholic drinks (Taittinger champagne) and two were producers of perfume and cosmetics (Coty and l’Oréal). Their political vision was one of distilled hatred and each contributed to the legacy of murder and betrayal that post-war France has had to painfully come to terms with.

Eugène Schueller (1881-1957) was the founder of the l’Oréal empire and sponsored the activities of a thuggish offshoot from Action Francaise by the name of La Cagoule. This notoriously violent group carried out political assassinations, bombing campaigns and sabotage. Former cagoulards were to find employment with l’Oréal after the war. This tale of infamy is well researched and told in detail in the book, Bitter Scent written by Michael Bar-Zohar. The name of l’Oréal is paraded before the consumer with insulting regularity. The plan is to persuade us to choose from their extensive range of products designed to conceal blemishes and imperfections. The misfortune of l’Oréal is that none of their products could in a million years remove the shame and misery that followed from the activities of their founder.

François Coty (1874-1934) was a pioneering creator of mass-market fragrances and by nature, reclusive. His passion for right wing politics and anti-Semitism had a less pleasant odour and in 1933 he founded a paramilitary organisation, Solidarité Francaise. The group looked to the Nazis and Hitler for its inspiration and was an active participant in the attempted overthrow of the Third Republic in February 1934. Coty Inc. is today a German owned business and the world’s largest fragrance company.

Champagne Taittinger is one of France’s most exclusive brands and the founder of the business, Pierre Taittinger (1887-1965), was yet another extremist of the right. He created his own group of fascist street fighters in 1924, Jeunesses Patriotes, and became an elected politician. During the Occupation he exploited his political power to extract for himself a generous slice of the proceeds of Aryanisation of Jewish owned property. Amazingly as Paris fell to the Allies in 1944, Taittinger successfully reinvented himself as a member of the resistance and was never held to account for his sordid past.

Three contaminated brands, three hidden histories, three reasons to think before you buy.

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