La France, the nation, a mere mention of which, conjures up images of luxury and class. Chic models decked up in Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent or Dior, wearing Chanel No. 5 as they march down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, the city of love, the capital of haute couture that houses all things lavish. The label “Made in France” on a Cartier watch bears testimony to a tradition of fine watchmaking. On a Hermès bag, it speaks volumes about the quality of the product. Oui, the love affair between La France and le luxe has stood the test of time.
Au contraire, this very fancy, very French love of luxury fails to pick up speed when it comes to driving around the city behind the wheel of a posh Bentley or Bugatti. A French YouTuber based in Poland, Hugo Cotton was astonished to see more luxury cars wheeling down the streets of Warsaw than Paris, even though Parisians earn two to three times the money. Moreover, as an exchange student in England, he also reports having seen Porsches and Lamborghinis parked in front of un taudis, French for ill-maintained, worn out apartments, which makes one consider the possibility of the owner having spent more on the car than on the house in front of which it was parked. In France, however, one wonders why the reality of the automotive industry stands in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour that the nation is otherwise associated with.
Les Français and Luxury Cars - a long lost love affair
While recalling luxury car brands, one would think of Italian Ferrari and Lamborghini, the German Mercedes Benz and Porsche or even their British counterparts Aston Martin and Bentley. If, at all, the lone French name Bugatti strikes your mind; it happens to now be owned by the German group Volkswagen. Das right.
While the world sees a car as a status symbol that serves as a means to flaunt one’s wealth, the French consumer is one that would rather sit back and relax in a Citroën, Renault or Peugeot, brands that prioritise comfort over luxury. Dacia, a Romanian budget hatchback has also been quite successful in the country. France’s rising disinterest in luxury cars is backed up by statistics pertaining to car sales. While BMW sold 9.6% of its cars in England in the year 2018, in France, it only managed to sell 3.5% even though the two countries share a similar quality of life.
Furthermore, whenever existing French brands have tried to foray into the luxury market, they have failed to evoke the expected response from the consumers. The Citroën C6, successor to the C5, for instance, was one of the cars that was supposed to rival the ‘sheer driving pleasure’ provided by a BMW, hoping to sell 30,000 cars annually. However, managing to sell only about three-quarters of the target, Citroën was forced to withdraw it in 2012.
History of the French car industry
Before World War II, there were plenty of luxury brands donning the Made in France label such as Hispano-Suiza, DeDion-Bouton and Panhard. Many of these are still owned by car collectors who boast of a vintage entourage. During the Second World War, however, France suffered several setbacks as it was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1940 and was reduced to rubble. As it lost the Battle of France which ensued after the German invasion of France, the French were forced to surrender with around 90,000 killed and 18,00,000 imprisoned. The economy was in shambles with rampant inflation. After France was liberated from Hitler’s regime in 1944, a series of centrist and socialist governments were elected. To curb the rising inflation, a hefty tax was levied on non-essential goods. Hence, French marques were forced to make smaller, mainstream cars.
Why don’t the French like luxury cars?
Even though it has been long since the epoch of the Second World War ended, the French luxury car has not seen its revival. One of the reasons for the same includes a heavy tax on purchases dubbed ‘signes ostentatoires de richesse’, ostentatious signs of richness, such as yachts and premium cars. If one buys a car with a horsepower of more than 36, they would have to pay a tax worth €8000. Along with that, an ecological tax called a ‘malus écologique’ of about €10000 would also be levied, something that puts off the French buyer.
Moreover, in French society, anybody who flaunts their wealth is dubbed bourgeois. The term, having originated during the French Revolution, was used to describe la bourgeoisie, a dominant social class consisting of royalty and their supporters who oppressed the commoners. Today, the term is used to critique snobbish city-dwellers who only wear branded clothes, consume organic products and yes, drive around in premium vehicles, a phenomenon that has led to even the President, Monsieur Macron himself, being seen in a Peugeot 5008. That, however, evokes an inquiry into the success of luxury fashion houses in France. The answer lies in the fact that the French associate Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Chanel and Dior with a certain tradition and savoir-faire that they are proud of. For them, these marques symbolise finesse in lieu of flamboyance.
While France is associated with extravagant brands, the automotive industry seems to have fallen out of love with it due to the discussed factors ranging from a preference for comfort to the aftermath of the war. Paradoxically enough, in the world of cars, French marques, known for their elegant fragrances, bubbly champagne and all things chic, have watched their neighbours speed by. Thus, as the world stops and stares at the mean machines, France just won’t hop on for a ride.