France is to make application to UNESCO for French gastronomy to be placed on the World Heritage List.
The announcement was made by the irrepressible President Sarkozy at the opening of the 45th National Agricultural Show in Paris last week, an occasion incumbent French Presidents traditionally use to display their affection for French rural life.
On this occasion, the President confirmed that not only were French farmers worthy of his blessing, but that all artisans involved in bringing food to the table deserved world recognition.
Accordingly, in a move likely to irritate many countries, France is proposing to deposit with UNESCO in 2009 an application that French gastronomy be added to the World Heritage List.
No country has ever before been able to achieve such recognition. Indeed, when Mexico had the brass to make such a request in 2005 it was politely, but firmly, shown the door.
Nevertheless, ‘we have the best food in the world, and it forms part of our heritage,’ argued the French President.
The President also argued that the ingredients to that acclaim included farmers and culinary based artisans.
The announcement by the President was not a wild flight of fancy, but an idea that has its gestation amongst a group of some of the country’s top chefs (Paul Bocuse, Alain Ducasse and Michel Guerard), who have been lobbying for such an application for several years.
Arguing that 'la cuisine, c'est de la culture', they consider that UNESCO should recognise French gastronomy as an ‘intangible’ cultural heritage. Their view is based not even mainly on the number of three star Michelins in the country, but the depth and variety of the food culture in France. Some commentators have argued that far from being just another example of l'arrogance française, the proposal is borne out of some anxiety for the future of French cuisine, suffering greater worldwide competition, and a decline in national eating habits. The chefs hope that by getting such recognition it would provide a new impetus to the industry. Indeed, unlike Sarkozy, the chefs are not arguing that French gastronomy is the best in the world, but simply that there is a unique French food culture. Not surprisingly, Italy has been first in the fray to have something to say about the French proposal. They consider their own food is more worthy of recognition than that of France, and in evidence point to the fact that the European Union recognises 166 Italian food specialities, whilst it recognises 10 less for France. The Italians also argue that their cheeses and wines are superior to those of the French versions. Whilst it is possible for UNESCO to recognise ‘immaterial’ culture treasures, to date they have been rare, and only in relation to dances and festivals. In order to achieve such recognition the activity must be deemed to have 'outstanding universal value'. The problem for the French is how they are going to be able to define and ring fence their undoubted savoir faire, and then to do so to the exclusion of other equally valid applications. Although France may have some difficulty convincing UNESCO, it should be remembered that the country has one of the largest number of World Heritage sites on the planet – after Italy!