Soft Power

Hollywood Puts France in the Spotlight

From Emily in Paris to Lupin, American blockbusters continue to present a well-groomed and rose-tinted vision of France. Tourism, real estate, and artisanal know-how are just a few of the French sectors that have benefited from the global reach of these shows. What’s more, their promotion of a certain way of life is rejuvenating the nation’s soft power. However, from Paris to Normandy, this free, Hollywood-style marketing is not to everyone’s tastes.
© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

“People say, ‘It’s not really Paris.’ But Darren [Star, the creator of Emily in Paris] didn’t invent the Eiffel Tower, the Opéra de Paris, or the Marais!” While on a promotional tour for Netflix, actor Bruno Gouery, who plays Luc, the Frenchiest of Emily’s French colleagues, adamantly defended the image of the French capital portrayed in the U.S. series. For the last two years, Parisians have been equal parts amused and aghast by the Woody Allen-esque Paris where Emily lives. Everything is beautiful, clean, safe, quiet, and trendy. It’s Paris, but with an Instagram filter. Movie buffs will remember that the same criticisms were leveled at Amélie Poulain’s Paris in 2021. It was too picture-perfect, old-fashioned, and even reminiscent of the Vichy regime, according to some! Yet this fantasized Paris is also highly sought-after. Amélie did more for the capital’s image than any of its mayors. The film extended an invitation to millions of tourists worldwide, desperate to discover the paved streets of Montmartre, the Canal Saint-Martin, and the city’s retro bistros.

The Da Vinci Code had the same effect five years later. The American blockbuster even partnered with Eurostar for its promotion. The train company used the fact that the movie was shot in Paris and London to invite both the French and the English to cross the Channel on the cheap and discover the culture and heritage depicted in Ron Howard’s film. By contrast, French arthouse cinema, which is the genre mainly distributed in the United States, often shows a darker, more complex, less immaculate France. In short, a more realistic one. Netflix offers both. On one side, small-scale productions with minimal marketing, such as Divines or Standing Up, appeal to essentially Francophone audiences and show the country as it is. On the other, big blockbusters represent the France that tourists dream about – and they have become particularly good at it.

Netflix, a Promoter of French Know-How

From Lupin and Emily in Paris to the upcoming Transatlantic and Franklin (see text box at the end), more and more American (or French-American) productions are being filmed in France. The first two have had a direct impact on the French tourism and luxury industries. Brands are now scrambling to place their products in these series, which are watched by millions of people across the world. Some companies pay tens of thousands of dollars for an appearance, while others are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Renowned for its vinyl dresses during the 1960s, Courrèges has made a spectacular comeback thanks to Netflix. All it took were a few seconds of Emily strolling through the Latin Quarter wearing one of the label’s jackets for Internet searches for “Courrèges” to shoot through the roof. Haute-couture clothing platform Lyst recorded a 194% increase in the weeks following the launch of the third season. The Carel fashion house has enjoyed the same boost. The brand was also at its peak in the 1960s, and rebooted its reputation among young shoppers after Emily was filmed wearing its Scoubidou tote bag. Sales of the accessory tripled in the weeks following the release of the second season, according to the brand’s CEO. Meanwhile, Google searches for “Carel” have increased by almost 200%.

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

Whether Chopard, AMI, or Chanel, it is hard to keep count of the brands benefiting from Netflix’s audience share. And while Emily in Paris has showcased French fashion know-how, Lupin has rejuvenated French literature. Hachette Romans, the publisher of the gentleman burglar’s adventures, immediately saw the series’ potential and became the U.S. streaming service’s exclusive partner. A new edition of the first tome hit the shelves in January 2021 – alongside the release of the first season – and was so successful that a further 10,000 copies were printed just one week after the first episodes came out.

A Stampede to Haussmannian Paris

Parisians will probably be less pleased to learn that Lupin and Emily in Paris have also contributed additional demand to the already saturated real estate market. Contacted by France-Amérique, My French House, a realtor specializing in French properties for English-speaking clients, has confirmed a correlation between the Netflix series and its booming clientele. The number of visits to the agency’s website from the United States has increased by more than 60% since the third season of Emily in Paris arrived on Netflix. These Americans are enticed by the strength of the dollar over the euro and by the prices in Emily’s beloved Latin Quarter, where properties sell for 1,400 dollar per square foot, compared with more than 1,800 dollars in SoHo or Tribeca!

“Our biggest growth has been among clients from New York, up 40% since the series started,” says Joanna Leggett, marketing director at Leggett Immobilier, another realtor specializing in U.S. buyers. “We have observed a major rise in the number of Americans interested in a condo with views of the Eiffel Tower,” she says. According to Sonya Severac, who manages the Leggett agency in Paris, “the typical style of 19th-century Haussmannian buildings, with their stone facades and wrought-iron details, sets Paris apart from the other global capitals.”

Intensified Tourism

In the tourism sector, the filming locations are particularly swamped. Every café where Emily has eaten a croissant has seen an increase in customers. Les Deux Compères, the fifth arrondissement brasserie where Emily’s crush Gabriel works, is actually an Italian restaurant called Terra Nera. The eatery’s revenue has risen by 10% since the first season. In fact, the entire Latin Quarter – which was already popular with tourists – has found new fame thanks to the U.S. series. This enthusiasm is not to the liking of all local business owners, particularly on Place de l’Estrapade, where many scenes were filmed. However, some of them have changed their tune and learned to accept the additional customers brought in by the production. After the release of the first season, the employees at Boulangerie Moderne quickly grew tired of tourists taking selfies and shared their annoyance in the French media. But three years later, the owner is delighted with the store’s revenue, although he has not given further details. In a sign of the times, the bakery has renamed its pains au chocolat “Emily” and now sells them for 2.80 euros a piece…

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

This influx of tourists is not confined to the capital, either. When Emily spends a few days in Saint-Tropez or Villefranche-sur-Mer, two already popular beach resorts on the Mediterranean coast, property rental reservations go through the roof on There was an increase of 80% between 2019 and 2021 for the former, and 30% for the latter immediately after the second season went live. Just over a hundred miles northwest of Paris, the eye-catching style of Netflix series has also worked wonders. Etretat is renowned in France for the cliffs that inspired Courbet and Monet, and is now beset with tourists who discovered the town through Lupin and its lead actor Omar Sy. The Normandy beach resort has always celebrated its shared history with Maurice Leblanc, the author of the Arsène Lupin novels. Le Clos Lupin, the house where the writer lived, even became a museum devoted to the fictional character in 1999. However, its visitor numbers have now increased tenfold, according to the establishment, and more than a million people came to the town of 1,400 in 2021.

The people of Etretat have had their lives turned upside down and city hall has had to intervene. The local authorities are considering banning visitors’ vehicles to deal with the now commonplace traffic jams and unauthorized parking. Another consequence – one that the inhabitants of Florence and Lisbon know all too well – is that the boom in demand for vacation homes has inspired wealthy investors to buy up property destined solely for the short-term rental market. “Families are leaving, and schools may have to close,” said the worried mayor of Etretat in an interview on the TF1 television network. He is now focused on a “demarketing” campaign to restore some pre-Netflix peace and quiet to the town, which is bracing itself for the series’ third season this year.

Paris Opens Up to Hollywood

The success of Lupin and Emily in Paris, along with French series released abroad such as Call My Agent!, has inspired others. The number of French-American projects is growing, facilitated by the work of UniFrance, the cultural services of the Embassy of France in the United States, and the organization French in Motion. In 2021, Paris beat its record for filmed productions, with a total of 110 feature-length movies and 64 series. This explosion in shoots is mainly caused by the arrival of streaming platforms, which have come to the French capital to film episodes of U.S. series including The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon Prime Video) and Dynasty (Netflix), as well as French-language productions with international audiences such as Irma Vep (HBO), Liaison (Apple TV+), Totems (Amazon Prime Video), Oussekine (Disney+), and of course Lupin (Netflix). Even Hollywood blockbusters now think nothing of filming in Paris, having previously preferred the United Kingdom and Eastern Europe for their ultramodern studios and tax cuts in exchange for promoting local landscapes.

Emily the Political Influencer...

Emily in Paris, among other U.S. productions, perpetuates the image of a joyous France in which people eat well, stroll absentmindedly through the streets, and enjoy life. A place defined by luxury, tranquility, and pleasure. It also showcases quintessential Parisian real estate while removing any glaring signs of modernity. An “undesirable and unviable fable,” in the words of green party politicians in Paris in an editorial published recently in French newspaper Libération. According to the deputy mayor in charge of transportation and mobility, David Belliard, the urban stasis promoted by the series is undeniably beautiful to look at, but should not be upheld as an example because it ignores current environmental challenges. “If we want to avoid shifting from Emily’s dreamworld into an apocalyptic nightmare, we have to invent a new urban aesthetic by changing how we view heritage,” he says. “Take the example of the city’s iconic gray rooftops. They are ill-adapted to climate change as their [reflective capacity] is far too weak, and people living on the top floors struggle with suffocating heat in the summer. So what should we do? Either we leave the pretty rooftops of today’s Paris – Emily’s Paris – or we invent something new, even if that means getting rid of the old roofs.”

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

The image of Paris portrayed by the Netflix series has been widely instrumentalized by city hall opponents, who see this picture-postcard depiction as divorced from reality. “They could have at least left a few garbage cans; I don’t recognize the city,” said American journalist Lindsey Tramuta, who moved to the capital in 2006, to Le Parisien. Meanwhile, David Belliard is not an all-out critic of the series. “I’m pleased to see that the city I love so much is the backdrop to countless movies, which helps to promote Paris. The real question is what the next seasons of Emily in Paris are going to look like.” Even the Paris tourism board is capitalizing on the series, and has a whole page on its website devoted to visiting the city through the young American’s eyes.

... and France’s Cultural Diplomat

Philippe Lane, professor emeritus at the Université de Rouen Normandie and the author of French Scientific and Cultural Diplomacy, also thinks that the series should not be dismissed. “We should have an uninhibited cultural diplomacy, not an elitist approach that may negatively impact our influence.” Having occupied different roles in French cultural networks in Australia, the U.K., and Jordan, he is delighted with what series such as Emily in Paris and Lupin say about France. “This mass culture is often condemned in official circles, but we should not ignore it or stigmatize it through some misguided intellectualism. On the contrary, we should use it to expand our cultural offering. We cannot simultaneously lament our waning influence and fail to see how these series enable us to reach a younger demographic.”

“Cultural diplomacy means maintaining a dialogue with other countries where politics is unable to,” says Philippe Lane. And given that France is a small country in terms of its size, population, and natural resources, it largely has its soft power to thank for its global standing. “This is increasingly true, especially during political crises. One of our main advantages is our incredible cultural and scientific network, our Instituts Français and Alliances Françaises across the world.” But according to Lane, France would benefit from providing a more positive cultural offering, doing away with the kid gloves and the excuses. In short, it should take advantage of the image presented by Netflix series, instead of relying on French arthouse movies that show a more negative, complicated, and elitist vision of the country. “This is also what makes us love French cinema, of course. But we must be able to step back from it. An outsider’s perspective, such as the one reflected by Emily in Paris, is changing the rules of our cultural diplomacy. The series is exclusively about fashion, trendy places, luxury, love, and food – which would have been seen as backwards stereotypes a few years ago. Yet within the cultural networks, I have seen that this perspective is carrying more and more weight. It is another vision, and one that might free us from our traditional and underestimated approach to French culture.”

© Pierre-Paul Pariseau

With this in mind, Philippe Lane believes that the concept of artist residencies opened across the world, and particularly in the United States, by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is a step in the right direction. “Some 20 or 30 years ago, France was convinced that it had the best artists and rested on its laurels. But the world has changed. We have understood that we need to create projects that appeal to a wider audience and draw on the reality of the country where we are.” This lesson is continuing to exert its influence in France thanks to Netflix, which has already extended Emily in Paris for a fourth season. The young American will therefore continue to promote France’s many terroirs. Some historians think that the Sun King was the first person to understand the notion of soft power, given his desire to promote French culture and share its sophistication with the world. In this way, Emily could well be a worthy successor!

Coming Soon

Set for release on April 7, this mini-series inspired by Julie Orringer’s 2019 novel The Flight Portfolio and filmed in Marseille follows the Emergency Rescue Committee during World War II. This American network, led by journalist Varian Fry and heiress Mary Jayne Gold, helped some 2,000 intellectuals to secretly leave France and escape Nazi persecution. Those rescued included German political scientist and philosopher Hannah Arendt, the figurehead of the Surrealist movement André Breton, and Russian painter Marc Chagal. Actors Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) and Cory Michael Smith (Gotham) play the leading roles.

Adapted from historian Stacy Schiff’s 2005 book A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, this period mini-series looks back at Benjamin Franklin’s time in France from 1776 to 1785. Actor Michael Douglas dons the role of the renowned American diplomat who persuaded Louis XVI to support the independence of the 13 British colonies that would go on to become the United States! Filmed in Paris and Versailles and set for a 2023 release, the series is carried by screenwriter Kirk Ellis (John Adams) and director Tim Van Patten (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos). On screen, it features French actors Ludivine Sagnier and Thibault de Montalembert (Call My Agent!, All Quiet on the Western Front).

Article published in the March 2023 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.