The Americanized Heart of Paris

France has its differences with the U.S., but celebrating Valentine's Day with flowers, candy, and lingerie clearly isn't one of the them

By Nassim Majidi and Christina Passariello

Ah, Paris: dinner by candlelight, strolls along the Seine, lovers passionately embracing on bridges. Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant fell under the city's spell in Charade. Robert Doisneau, perhaps France's most famous photographer, immortalized kisses in train stations and on cafe terraces in the 1950s. It seems that every day in Paris has always been as romantic as the one before.

Until now, that is. Some Frenchmen may abhor MacDonald's and U.S. policy on Iraq. But for reasons part Parisian and part commercial, the City of Light is embracing Valentine's Day (and Halloween, but that's another story) as never before, giving romance a whole new raison d'être. These days, Paris is festooned in a bonanza of red and pink as mid-February approaches. "Valentine's Day is now a part of society, as much in the media as in stores, and first and foremost in people's hearts," says Evelyne Roux, spokesman for Galeries Lafayette, the department store that has taken top model Laetitia Casta and dressed her as its Cupid.

Big love means big money for lingerie and perfume makers, as well as florists and restaurants. As more French fall in love with the midwinter celebration, couples are catching the gift-giving habit. Astrid Morel, a spokesman for champagne house Duval-Leroy, concedes that Valentine's Day "is not yet a significant part of our profits -- but with the way things are going, it will soon be huge."


  Lingerie has certainly hit its stride. The first two weeks of February is now the busiest period of the year for signature French brands such as Aubade, Lise Charmel, and Princesse Tam-Tam. Aubade is running a sexy ad campaign featuring faceless femmes fatale whose lace-covered derrieres teach a "lesson in seduction". The ads have caught the attention of men, who are beginning to venture into lingerie boutiques. "More and more men are giving lingerie for Valentine's Day, more than chocolate or flowers. They are more willing to buy it these days than in the past," says Hélène Imbert, a spokesman for Aubade, which has launched its new red-and-pink line, Flame, in time for the holiday.

Still, some men continue to favor flowers. Two of France's biggest florists, Au Nom De La Rose and Aquarelle, say they're ready. Aquarelle thinks Valentine's Day business will be up 74% over last year, while Au Nom De La Rose is featuring a special page on its Web site to remind lovers that nothing says it like flowers. The holiday now accounts for 15% of Au Nom De La Rose's annual revenue. Says marketing director Sebastien Jiuge: "It becomes more important every year."

The Federation of French Perfumery is also hot on the scent, having recently consolidated the industry's advertising efforts by creating a TV spot reminiscent of Doisneau's photos. With its images of French couples kissing to chanson music, it's enough to make those who don't celebrate Cupid's feast feel like the Grinch at Christmas.


  Some French still believe that the way to a loved one's heart is through the stomach. Le Cinq, the most recent restaurant to be crowned with Michelin's three stars, is one of the many eateries to concoct a special Valentine's menu -- at a premium price, of course. Much like New Year's Eve, their scallops and caviar will set each couple back 600 euros. Champagne house Duval-Leroy thinks Valentine's Day could be as big a money-maker as Christmas, since there's nothing as special as bubbly to celebrate love. Duval-Leroy has bottled its Lady Rose bubbly just for the day.

But in France, singles won't be forgotten -- even though one-third of Parisians lack soulmates, according to demographic studies. For those lonely hearts, Galeries Lafayette is planning a singles night on the Valentine's eve that will amount to a six-floor exercise in speed dating. Lonely-hearts can have their makeup done and then post their picture and phone number on a bulletin board. It will amount to a last-minute attempt to find a date -- but being alone on the 14th of February suddenly means something in France.

Majidi and Passariello are editorial assistants in BusinessWeek's Paris bureau

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht