French innovation is a work of art

It may be news to most Brits, but France is home to generations of inventive pioneers, as Agnès C. Poirier reports

Let’s play a game. When I say the word France, what images come first to mind? A glass of champagne, the Eiffel Tower, a freshly baked baguette, Versailles, Charles de Gaulle, Marie-Antoinette, beautiful Provençal landscapes with fields of lavender. Few people will associate France with machines, physics or even medicine.

If I say France, how many of you will think first of pasteurisation, photography, roulette, cabaret, cinema, rubber, hydrogen, viscose, neon, polonium, calculator, the metric system, radioactivity, blood transfusion, aspirin, rabies vaccine, insulin pump, automobile, parachute, hot air balloon, submarine, bicycle, denim, the polo shirt, Braille, pencil sharpener, the Olympic Games and the hairdryer? Very few. I’m being unfair perhaps.

Some of you may actually conjure up images of pétanque and the guillotine, two great French inventions, but only because they fit the traditional image of life in France with its wonderful, simple pleasures and revolutionary spirit.

And yet, for centuries France has been a world champion of invention and original ideas, even if the French often leave others to industrialise them. Think of cinema and the automobile, for instance. While French artists were perfecting methods of fading out and fading in, Hollywood was creating the star and studio system.

The same applies to automobiles. When Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot created the first full-scale and self-propelled mechanical vehicle in 1769, little did he know that France would remain the world’s most significant automaker until the early-1900s, with 30,000 cars produced in 1903, and Europe’s first automobile manufacturer until the early-1930s, with 140,000 cars sold in 1933. The United States, Britain and Germany, however, soon took over the automobile industry.

France’s dozens of family-owned car businesses, such as Delahaye, Levassor, Panhard and Hispano-Suiza, were too busy discussing the chrome quality of their cars’ window handles and the technique of embossing leather for their dashboards. We’ll agree that innovators and aesthetes don’t always make the best traders.

TOP-THREE INNOVATOR

Remarkably, however, the Gallic power of invention has not faded with time. You will probably be surprised to hear that to this day France remains in the top three most innovative countries on the planet. France comes third after the United States and Japan, with twelve French companies in the Top 100 Global Innovators list collated by Thomson Reuters. Four criteria have been taken into account: the number of registered patents, their exploitation, success on the international stage and the number of times they are used by other innovative companies in the world.

Top French innovative companies are Alcatel-Lucent, a leader in telecom and cloud computing, which owns the famous Bell Labs, responsible for more than 29,000 registered patents since 1925); Arkema, a speciality chemicals and advanced materials company with an army of 1,200 researchers focusing on ultra-high-performance polymers and green development; L’Oréal, the conspicuous cosmetic industry world leader with the famous motto “Because you’re worth it”; Michelin, one of the two largest tyre manufacturers in the world; Safran, a world leader in aeronautics which reinvests 11 per cent of its profits into research and development; Saint-Gobain, founded in Paris in 1665, a leader in construction and high-performance materials, especially engineered materials such as abrasives and ceramics; Thales, the aerospatial and defence company, with an international network of research labs in which it reinvests 20 per cent of its profits; and Valeo, the automotive parts supplier which focuses on green systems and intuitive driving.

In pure research terms, CNRS, the French National Centre for Scientific Research, founded in 1939, is Europe’s largest fundamental science agency and the biggest governmental research organisation in France, employing more than 32,000 researchers, all enjoying the status of high civil servants. The Commissariat of Atomic Energy is yet another research leader in France as is the IFP, Institut Français du Pétrole, set up in 1944; both are financed by the French state. According to Thomson Reuters, these French organisations spent $50 billion in research and development in 2012.

STATE INTERVENTION

The importance of the French state in generating, fostering and promoting innovation, giving it both a direction and a framework, is always striking and difficult to understand for outsiders. However, state intervention in all facets of French life goes back a long way.

Remember Louis XIV’s finance minister Colbert? He not only coined the term “dirigisme” to describe such statist policies, but he put it into effect with dramatic results. He created new industries and manufactures, protected inventors, invited foreign skilled workers to train French workmen and forbade this newly skilled French workforce to emigrate.

Colbert brought all French luxury industries of the time, from textiles to porcelain, under royal control, thus making Versailles the world’s first integrated laboratory for the latest trends in architecture, music, art, furniture and fashion. He is also known for having restored France’s economic health by unifying, rationalising and increasing taxes. He famously explained: “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing”, a saying the British Chancellor George Osborne is said to be very fond of.

Revolutionaries and Napoleon Bonaparte not only retained, but thoroughly developed, the idea of dirigisme and crafted it into an art. Grand plans, grand schemes and ideas were de rigueur. Charles de Gaulle followed in their footsteps; so did Giscard d’Estaing and François Mitterrand.

Along with invention and innovation arose a concern for design, strategic as much as aesthetic. Design was envisaged as a way to think differently, a way to invent new ways of living. Le Corbusier, a pioneer of urban architecture, was the first modern architect to be preoccupied with living conditions in a crowded metropolis. He wanted to design places that would be equally beautiful and functional. His Radiant City in Marseilles, designed in the late-1940s and built in rough-cast concrete, is a chef d’oeuvre of beauty and functionality for social housing.

For centuries France has been a world champion of invention and original ideas, even if the French often leave others to industrialise them

In the automobile industry, France’s designers and engineers joined forces to acquire remarkable prestige. The Citroën DS was such a feat of beauty and science that it looked as if it had “just fallen from the sky”, as the Structuralist supremo and philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in an essay dedicated to the car. With its aerodynamic futuristic body and its innovative technology – hydro-pneumatic suspension, clutch and transmission – it combined the talents of the Italian sculptor Flaminio Bertoni with those of the aeronautical engineer André Lefèbvre. Citroën produced 1.5 million DSs between 1955 and 1975.

The French “goddess of the roads” – the initials DS are a wordplay on déesse, “goddess” in French – was both so revolutionary and mesmerisingly beautiful that it still regularly tops surveys as the most stunning and influential car of all time.

French innovative designers with a social and environmental conscience are legion. For the last 30 years, Philippe Starck, the son of an aeronautical engineer who invented the lipstick case and non-slip coating in his spare time, has become synonymous with iconoclastic and highly memorable creations, from museums and hotels to toothbrushes, chairs, boats and bicycles.

Starck has authored more than 10,000 designs, and has established himself as one of the world’s most prolific and mercurial creators. Utopian too. He’s used to saying: “What I’m interested in is not design, it’s our life as part of the human species, our ongoing efforts to achieve progress, evolution and change. The only good thing about this job is thinking you might be able to influence or even change things.”

And then came the Bouroullec brothers. The Pompidou Centre in Metz has recently dedicated a retrospective to the work of this duo, a sign that their talent is taken very seriously. Born in the mid-1970s, designers of lightness and luminosity, they are as interested in form and function as in comfort, affordability and sustainability.

They too want to think and make things that will contribute to collective happiness. They question our relationship with objects and how we never cease to rearrange them to meet our needs better. They are as comfortable reimagining what the future car will feel like for BMW’s research lab as they are competing to create a new permanent chandelier for the Palace of Versailles. Not surprisingly, their conception of a 12-metre-long crystal chandelier, for which they registered a special patent, won the international competition. Like a necklace of pearls, each of the 500 crystals hides LED lighting. The Bouroullec chandelier now adorns the king’s private Versailles grand apartments.

And what is more appropriate for the most innovative designers than to revolutionise France’s crown jewels.