French vote for `ideal' woman as a symbol of the Republic

HOW SHOULD Marianne, the earnest young woman who symbolises the French Republic, appear in the 21st century? Should she look like a pop- singer or a game-show host? An actress or a television journalist?

The 36,000 mayors of France will vote in the next three weeks to choose the prototype for a new statue of Marianne.

The present standard, municipal bust, displayed in town halls all over France, was modelled on the features of Catherine Deneuve in 1985; her immediate predecessors were Mireille Mathieu and Brigitte Bardot.

The 19th century produced warrior Mariannes and mother Mariannes; the 20th century favoured glamorous Mariannes. This time the mayors say that they are looking for someone who represents a modern, working woman; someone who will encapsulate "solidarity, openness and tolerance ... the civic values of the 21st century" but also a "woman of her times".

Judging by Parisian street fashions, such a thoroughly modern Marianne would have short hair, cropped pants, a mobile telephone and in-line skates. But the French association of mayors has already steered its members towards a more conventional choice.

Initially, the association planned to ignore celebrities and select an "unknown" Marianne. The mayors failed to work out how this could be done short of organising a "Miss Marianne" contest. In the end, commercial sponsorship of the project dictated that well-known faces and names would have to be used.

A shortlist of five 21st- century Mariannes has been drawn up. It includes the actress Laetitia Casta, seen recently in the film version of Asterix, the singer Patricia Kaas and the model Estelle Hallyday (daughter-in-law of Johnny). The remaining candidates are Nathalie Simon, who is a former presenter of the French version of It's a Knockout, and a television producer and journalist, Daniela Lumbroso. Of these, only Ms Lumbroso can reasonably claim to be an ordinary working woman. It will, however, be up to the mayors to decide.

The model for Marianne - invented as a national symbol to replace the king during the French Revolution - will be selected democratically for the first time. To help the mayors in their choice, they will receive a colour picture of the candidates and a short personal statement in which each woman explains why she would be the ideal Marianne.

Ms Kaas writes, modestly, that she symbolises the "values" of "hard work, cour-age, devotion and the pleasure of communicating with others. If the mayors of France see the Marianne of the year 2000 in this light, then I would be especially proud to represent my country in her guise."

Ms Lumbroso claims to be a trained sociologist "switched on to her times".

Ms Hallyday says she symbolises the modern woman, "combining career and family life".

Ms Simon says she is "prepared to represent the woman of today, ready for anything, with no preconceptions".

Ms Casta, perhaps missing the point, says she is used to playing "mythical figures" because, in the recent Asterix film, she appeared in the costume of a woman of ancient Gaul (in truth, she was more out of her costume than in it).

The mayors have until 30 September to send in their vote. The result will be announced in mid- October and the completed bust unveiled at their annual conference on 23 November.