It’s 1789, and the people of France are starving. A messenger is sent to Versailles to inform the young Austrian queen (hellbent on devouring every last pink macaron in the capital) of the plight of her people.
“My queen,” he says. “The people have no bread.”
“Well, then,” she says. “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche. Let them eat cake.”
Dramatic? Sure. Realistic? Not exactly.
Despite what we’ve been led to believe, Marie Antoinette never actually said “let them eat cake.” But there is a case to be made for the importance placed upon the supposed utterance.
For Emmanuel Rubin, French culinary journalist and co-founder of Le Fooding, this is demonstrative of a “double culture” of politics and gastronomy that is “visceral” to the French way of thinking. In France, to discuss politics at the dinner table is far from frowned upon. In fact, conflating politics and food is a common cultural trait present throughout French history.
When agronomist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier sought to popularize the potato (which, in eighteenth-century France, were thought to cause leprosy), he offered bouquets of potato blossoms to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI to wear (in their hair and buttonhole, respectively). Soon after, the philosophical Enlightenment writings of Descartes and Rousseau were concurrent with the establishment of a sort of culinary Enlightenment from the likes of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who wrote: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are.” The political upheaval that was, in some ways, a direct result of these philosophers’ thoughts was planned in Parisian cafés like Le Procope, which were propagated throughout the countryside thanks to rural “Republican banquets” where, Rubin explains, “everyone sat together—people and politicians alike.”
Moreover, Rubin notes, “Revolutions often happen because people have nothing on their plates. And in France, we’ve lived through a lot of revolutions.”
When the sixteenth century Wars of Religion and the ensuing siege of Paris cut off food supplies to the capital, Madame de Montpensier, a powerful member of the Catholic League, “exalted the invention” of an unholy “bread” that would prove to bear her name, according Parisian diarist Pierre de L’Estoile in 1590; the dough was made not from flour, but from “the bones of our forefathers,” disinterred from the mass graves of the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery. During the Siege of Paris in 1870, while starving Parisians were relegated to eating street rats and zoo animals (elephant consommé, kangaroo stew, and truffled antelope terrine all featured on the Christmas menu at the restaurant Voisin), the government had temporarily absconded to Bordeaux, leaving the starving citizens to fend for themselves.
Marie Antoinette is probably the most famous example of a leader ostensibly indifferent to the hunger of her people, albeit in legend only. In reality, her infamous quote predates the queen by quite a bit. One sixteenth-century German story, reports Britannica, attributes the phrase to a noblewoman who wondered why the hungry poor didn’t just eat krosem, a sweet bread similar to the brioche mentioned in the French version of the quote. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, meanwhile, attributed the phrase to an unnamed “great princess” in his Confessions in 1767, when Marie Antoinette was just twelve years old. The phrase wasn’t linked to Marie Antoinette specifically (at least in print) until 1843, more than fifty years after the French Revolution during which she purportedly said it.
“This phrase became a sort of proverbial expression targeting the indifference of the powerful,” explains Cécile Berly, a historian specializing in the eighteenth century.
But for Berly, it was a strange thing to associate with a queen who “was not a big eater.”
“The Marie Antoinette of Sofia Coppola, who eats sweets and candy and pastry and macarons all day—that’s an aesthetic invention,” Berly says. “In her day to day, as dauphine and then young queen of France, Marie Antoinette didn’t eat very much, and she did not enjoy eating.”
While her disconnect from the realities of her subjects was indeed rooted in truth, its conflation with food was wholly invented, albeit by a society for which food is often shorthand. A truer example of such flippancy can be found more recently: when former Minister of the Budget and presidential hopeful Jean-François Copé woefully underestimated the price of a pain au chocolat in 2016 at ten to fifteen centimes (as compared to the euro or two they usually fetch) to grousings and grumblings from the French masses.
In France, the interest in the eating habits of the powerful doesn’t end there. Consider King Louis XIV, who was required, by virtue of his position, to participate multiple times a week in a sort of public meal—dining before an audience of lucky courtiers.
“It was a demonstration of power,” explains Berly, who notes similar attention was paid, at the time, to the king’s sex life. “A king has to eat a lot to show off his appetite.”
France has long since done away with its monarchy, but a good coup de fourchette (literally, “fork hit;” figuratively, “ability to tuck in”) is still seen as a quality befitting a person of power. Jacques Chirac, who was president from 1995 to 2007, was often perceived as a genial sort of chap thanks in part to his professed love of the popular peasant dish, veal’s head.
“It’s a simple, rustic dish—a bit in the image of Jacques Chirac,” Gérard Pavéro, representative of the Saint-Laurent-de-Chamousset brotherhood of tête de veau, an organization celebrating the history and quality of the dish, told French news outlet 20 Minutes when Chirac passed away in 2019. It gave the right-leaning politician a bit of a populist appeal; indeed, while a common expression in French to reference a highbrow leftist is gauche caviar (“caviar left”), similarly, a right-wing politician wanting to show his working-class roots might be called droite cassoulet or droite tête de veau, evoking two hearty rural specialties.
While the characterization of Chirac seemed fitting, Guillaume Gomez, Chef of the Elysée Palace, alluded to France Bleu that the head of state’s “love” of veal’s head may have been a bit conflated. “In twelve years, we served him veal’s head twice,” the chef told the outlet. “The second time, he said we didn’t need to make it anymore.”
Whether Chirac’s love of tête de veau was pure invention or merely waned after one too many countryside cooks happily foisted it upon him over the course of his years in the public eye remains unclear. Either way, such a rustic professed favorite served to ground him in the public eye and thus endear him to many.
Perhaps no event better shows this uniquely French obsession than the Salon International de l’Agriculture, an annual agricultural trade show that sees farmers and producers from all over the country bring their very best products to Paris, where they sell and enter them into competitions. It is a must-attend event for any politician, particularly presidential hopefuls, to show their implicit connection to and support of France’s terroir and the country’s agricultural workers.
“They don’t stop eating,” says Rubin, evoking the glasses of wine, Calvados and cognac to be drunk, the foie gras, cheese and chocolate to be sampled. “We judge politicians on their capacity to endure the marathon that is the Salon de l’Agriculture.”
While presidents and politicians have long attended the Salon, Chirac “was the champion,” Rubin notes. A staple of the event from 1972 to 2011, Chirac represented a link between Parisian politicians and the French people, particularly when President François Mitterrand, breaking with tradition, opted not to attend, despite the tense relations between the government and agricultural industry in the 1980s. Chirac, whether in his capacity as Mitterrand’s Prime Minister, mayor of Paris, presidential hopeful, or president, sampled the wares of his fellow citizens with gusto.
“That’s why the French thought he was a pretty nice guy,” says Rubin.
In stark contrast, a person of power indifferent to food becomes suspect under the discerning French eye. While missing the Salon International de l’Agriculture has yet to sway a presidential election, France was still talking about Mitterrand’s absence twenty years after his death in 2016.
Napoléon Bonaparte’s culinary indifference, too, was much remarked upon in his time. The emperor was known not for his palate, but rather for the speed at which he ate, explains Thierry Lentz, Director of the Fondation Napoléon. “He ate very, very quickly,” he says. “And he liked simple food: poultry, pasta, pasta with cheese.”
Napoléon didn’t drink much wine, and what wine he drank, he cut with water. He didn’t linger at the table. And these habits didn’t endear him to his peers, explains Lentz, citing a common joke at the time of his consulship, during which he shared power as part of a triumvirate: “If you want to eat well, go to Cambacérès’. If you want to eat poorly, go to Lebrun’s. If you don’t want to eat at all, go to Bonaparte’s.”
This portrait is also evocative of another French leader: former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who famously elided the French cheese course to save time and had far more of a taste for Coca-Cola than for Bordeaux. But despite their personal tastes, both men also knew how important food was in the public sphere. Napoléon was instrumental in the development of the reputation of French cuisine, encouraging dignitaries to employ good cooks and to organize great dinners in order to show off “the power of the state via the table,” explains Lentz. And when trade embargoes resulted in a lack of sugarcane, Napoléon even championed the development of sugar beets, of which France remains the top producer in the world to this day.
By the same token, Rubin recalls, while most citizens had a hard time coming to grips with a president with such American tastes, Sarkozy understood he had to make up for what some might perceive as a personal failing; it was, after all, Sarkozy who insisted upon the recognition of the French meal on UNESCO’s representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
“It was kind of his way of making up for being an Atlantic, globalist, Americentric president, who drank more Coke than wine,” muses Rubin, who suggests current President Emmanuel Macron follows much in the same vein.
“We’ve got no idea what he eats,” says Rubin, noting that Macron has nevertheless taken strides to keep up appearances, breaking Chirac’s Salon International de l’Agriculture record by remaining fourteen hours at the event in 2019 and communicating heavily about restaurants in the wake of COVID-19 closures, with his Prime Minister Jean Castex, dubbing 2021 “The Year of Gastronomy.”
Today, Rubin notes, the importance of a particular politician’s eating habits is waning, much like the cultural importance of food and cooking in France in general. For Rubin, while the French retain the illustrious image of their cuisine, the reality is that fewer and fewer French people take the time for the hour-long lunch break for which they are famous or cook the four-course meal that was once a mainstay, even on weeknights. “They cook on the weekend, as a hobby,” says Rubin. “Like playing tennis.”
And yet, he says, the importance of the image of French food remains—particularly in politics. The French president’s king cake, for instance, is always baked without the porcelain fève that traditionally designates its finder the king of the day—this, to prevent a king from being in the Republic’s Elysée Palace (even a king whose reign is decided by pastry and shown with a paper crown). Contests like Les Glorieuses de Bresse, which places the very best Bresse hen, with its red crest, white feathers, and blue feet (in an image of the French flag), on the presidential plate, or the meilleure baguette de Paris, which gives the winning baker the right to provide the French president with his daily bread quota, make this link ever more concrete.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think the president really cares who makes his baguette,” says Rubin. “But they’re supporting the artisanship.” They’re supporting history and tradition.
There’s a certain amount of pride in this conflation of politics and food. Why else would the French so love the (likely apocryphal) story of Charles de Gaulle claiming it was impossible to govern a country with 258 kinds of cheese—or Marie Antoinette and her famous brioche?
“I can’t see a French president ever saying, ‘I don’t give a fuck about food. It doesn’t interest me,’” says Rubin. “Even if it’s true, he’d never say it.”
Food and politics are integral parts of what make the French French. Conflating them is only second-nature.
“For better or for worse,” he continues, “we’ve been obsessed with it for three centuries.”