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French Fashion Not Concerned About U.S. Consumer Backlash

French fashion and beauty execs continue to downplay potential impact on their businesses despite rising anti-French feelings in the U.S. and U.K.

PARIS — There isn’t a Chirac effect — at least not yet.

Even as anti-French sentiments fester in the U.S. and Britain over the strident comments against a war with Iraq being made by French president Jacques Chirac, French fashion and beauty executives continue to downplay any potential impact on their businesses. They express disbelief about any boycott of French fashion and urge a broader, long-term perspective on Franco-American relations.

With Paris Fashion Week less than two weeks away, Didier Grumbach, head of the French fashion federation and the Chambre Syndicale, said he was confident of strong attendance, press coverage and business, short of any escalation of the global political situation.

“If anything could hurt the week, it’s an actual war or international crisis,” he said. “The collections in Paris are an international event as long as designers who are British, American, Japanese, Dutch and from other countries continue to show here.”

He also expressed doubt that boycotts or sanctions against France would come to pass. “It’s not the first time there are disagreements of this type,” he said. “I can disagree with [American president George Bush’s] policy without hating America. Economic sanctions have never solved any problems and frankly, I don’t believe in it. It only creates more hard feelings.

French consumer products represent a minority of exports to the U.S. According to Grumbach, about 9 percent of women’s ready-to-wear shipped out of France is destined for the U.S.

Overall, consumer products represent only 18.4 percent of French exports, with beverages accounting for 7 percent and perfumes and beauty products accounting for about 2.5 percent, according to customs figures. Textiles and clothing fall under the “other” category along with food, which totals 8.9 percent. The most important French exports to the U.S. are aerospace and industrial products, which together account for more than 60 percent of the total of about $28 trillion annually.

But there is growing belligerence between the U.S., Britain and France. London’s Sun newspaper took the vitriol up a notch Thursday by distributing free copies of the tabloid in Paris bearing the headline: “Chirac is a Worm,” in French, along with a letter in French posing the question: “Aren’t you ashamed of your president?” The Sun’s antics follow that of its sister paper The New York Post, which last week plastered heads of weasels onto portraits of the French delegation to the United Nations.

Executives contacted shrugged off such hyperbole.

“Everyone knows that at the end of the day, France and America are really big allies and I don’t think we should worry about very emotional, short-term issues,” said Ralph Toledano, president of Chloé.

As for Chirac’s remarks, “he’s doing what he finds right for France and I respect that,” Toledano said. “Honestly, I have heard much more American colleagues worrying about their president’s policy than anything else.”

Donald Potard, president of Jean Paul Gaultier, said the diplomatic contretemps between France and the U.S. were “not good for business. It’s not good for the Bourse. It’s not good for anything.” Nonetheless, Potard voiced support for Chirac’s stance against war with Iraq. “Eighty percent of Europeans are against this war,” he said. “Chirac is their spokesman.”

Potard also stressed that France and America are long-standing allies and that expressing different opinions should not undermine that. “We live in a democratic society and expressing different opinions is not a crime,” he said. “I’m shocked that so much acrimony is flying around over a difference in opinions. France is not anti-American.”

Potard said Gaultier has not experienced boycotts of its products, but he related that the company recently had difficulty clearing products at American customs. “They held a shipment of leather goods up for a week and a half,” he said. “We had to provide them the same papers four times. I understand that they could have lost them once, but to have lost them three times seemed to be deliberate. I wonder how I’ll be received the next time I have go through passport control in New York. France was the first country to offer condolences after Sept. 11. I remember going to New York right after the attacks and being greeted warmly at customs. Nobody was traveling then. I wonder what type of reception I would get now.”

A spokesman for luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said the group has not observed any major change in demand for its products in the U.S. Indeed, asked about a possible boycott of French products, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault said last week at the Donna Karan show: “I don’t think it will have a real impact. Our products are very desirable. It has nothing to do with the diplomatic situation. I don’t think it will affect the sale of French champagne. It’s just a political issue. Obviously, we’re worried about a war, but if it’s over and it’s a short one, we’ll be able to manage.”

In general, there is a feeling among luxury players here that it would be easier to rally support for a boycott of mass-market products rather than items like champagne or high-end leather goods. Also, it is believed any economic sanctions would likely center on aerospace or industrial products, not handbags or perfumes.

“I don’t have any comments on politics — my only concern is that it will make business difficult,” said Chantal Roos, chairman and chief executive officer of YSL Beauté. “If French products are banned, it will be a problem for us, of course, but also if American products are banned in France. In any case, Americans will miss French [wine] more than we will miss Coca-Cola.”

At Chanel, a spokeswoman declined to discuss politics, but she said the house has seen no boycotts of its products at present. “Our hope is that everything will be solved,” she commented. “Obviously, we feel we are in a crisis situation now. But for the moment we have seen no adverse reactions to our products.”

“I think that in the end, Europe will reach a consensus,” said Manuel Puig, president of Puig Prestige Beauty Brands, which include the French names Nina Ricci and Paco Rabanne.

As for the specter of a boycott of French goods, it’s not anywhere on his radar screen. “For me, boycotting is about two centuries old,” he said. “It’s against free commerce. Businesses today are global, while boycotts are local.”