Social unrest permitting, France will soon be hosting Euro 2016, with matches scheduled in ten major cities. Flags and bunting will be flying everywhere, but have you ever wondered where they all come from? Made in China and shipped in by the container load? Not a bit of it! The nerve centre of French flag making operations is located in a discreet but beautiful Art Deco building by the station in Tain l’Hermitage, which has always intrigued us. After reading a brief article in the local paper, we decided to take a closer look.
We peered through the window, then pushed open the heavy wrought iron and frosted glass door and entered the world of Manufêtes.
This family owned business started up in 1936 and has spanned three generations. The present director, Benjamin Robert, employs a workforce of fifteen and is proud to explain that all the items produced here are hand made in the traditional manner. His firm supplies the army and other national institutions such as the Sénat and the Banque de France and will make anything up to order, from embroidered regimental colours to supporter badges for the local football team.
With Euro 2016 matches taking place in Lyon, St Etienne and Marseilles, all nearby, he is facing a massive run on flags and bunting and has also put together a supporter’s kit including a wig, whistle and make up along with the flag. (Security concerns dictate that all flag waving must henceforth be done using shafts made of plastic rather than the traditional wood). Manufêtes is also producing the flags of all the nations represented in Euro 2016.
A hallway led to a little shop at the far end, well stocked with a cheerful supply of frivolity and a few more serious items destined for the Italian police and Veteran’s Associations.
Markus blagged his way into the workroom, where everything is still hand made and embroidered on vintage sewing machines.
The busy season at Manufêtes generally starts in April, in the run up to the ceremonies of May 8th, July 14th and November 11th and this year they are working flat out to meet the anticipated demand in tricolores. We learned that stocks have been seriously depleted since the Paris attacks in November last year, which is interesting.
Different countries have different relationships with their flags. In Switzerland for example, both national and canton flags are everywhere: adorning bridges, stretched out along pedestrianised streets, hung about in shopping malls and supermarkets or enlivening allotments. Swiss flags the size of table cloths are flown astern of the stately lake steamers and many gardens have a pole, usually flying the flag of the relevant canton.
Of course the Stars and Stripes are very often to be seen flying proudly on private properties in the US too but whereas the Swiss happily brandish their red and white number in folklore shows and flag-throwing competitions, Old Glory is treated with a great deal more respect and must never, for example, touch the ground.
The relationship of the French with the tricolore is a little uneasy, since it has been hijacked to a certain extent by the Front National far right party and until the November attacks it was rarely used or displayed by private individuals.
That all changed on November 13th as people the world over superimposed the bleu blanc rouge on their social media profile pages and iconic buildings on every continent were illuminated in the French national colours in a gesture of solidarity.
Meanwhile the French themselves hung the flag from their balconies or, for want of a flag, often adopted more creative ways of expressing their feelings.
On high days and holidays in Paris and other large cities the buses fly two little flags from holders fitted on the front – there is even a special verb for this practice: pavoiser. I love the air of insouciant jollity that this gives the bus as it forges ahead in the traffic, flags streaming. One year (it was in 1998) I was sorry to see that on July 14th most buses only sported one flag and some none at all. I wrote to the RATP to find out why and to my amazement (the Paris transport system was not known then for its customer care) I received a charming reply. It turned out that when France had defeated Brazil in the Stade de France two days earlier to win the World Cup, bus driver joy had been so unbridled that they had appropriated supplies of the little flags and initiated a spontaneous pavoisement of their vehichles. Inevitably quite a few of them never returned to base, hence the paucity of flags available for la fête nationale two days later!
I wonder if history is about to repeat itself as it were!
Photo credits: dailytelegraph.com.au REUTERS/Jean-Paul Pelisser and Markus (others unidentifiable)