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James Bond and the French connection: 70 years of 007

“I take a ridiculous pleasure in what I eat and drink”

Such is their adherence to gastronomic traditions, that could easily be a quote from any French person worth their weight in Goldfinger, but it’s actually a line from 007 himself in Ian Fleming’s very first Bond book, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary today. Joyeux anniversaire Casino Royale.

I know it’s easy for me to say this by virtue of my location, but James Bond and France go together like the iconic Vodka Martini and a twist of lemon peel. Shaken not stirred, and splashed with the French aperitif Lillet, naturally. 

French culture has certainly had a major hand in shaping the 007 franchise, from stunts and cars to fashion and food. Across 14 books (and dozens of ‘continuation’ novels), 25 official and two rogue films, Ian Fleming’s legendary spy has travelled widely throughout Gallic lands, has driven French cars (including a turn in that yellow comedy Citroën 2CV — forever rubbished by Brits as a pregnant duck on roller skates) in For Your Eyes Only, and, with his famous sartorial elegance, has saved the world in Dior jackets, Agnelle gloves and Vuarnet sunglasses. 

With tournedos (done rare, not out of a bottle) and sauce béarnaise a fave rave, French food has played a big role in the books and the films, reflecting the fine dining tastes of Ian Fleming who often visited the country and spoke fluent French. “In 1953 the author travelled to Marseille as a journalist,” recalls Edward Biddulph, founder of James Bond Food, a website dedicated to 007’s culinary preferences. “And in his reporting mentioned the second city’s famous bouillabaisse, which then made it into the story of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

Alas, if we’re talking Champagne, we can argue whether Bond is more a Bollinger or a Dom Pérignon man, while Taittinger was an early favourite before the bubbly was dropped from the films. But one thing is incontrovertible: in the most recent Daniel Craig era the two women he fell deeply in love with were both French. Indeed, he was so head over heels that he was prepared to give up not just his job as the world’s premier secret agent but, at the climax of the misleadingly titled No Time To Die, also his life. Ooops, spoilers.

With the casting of Eva Green as Vesper Lynd working out so well, it’s small wonder another French actress was chosen to be the painter that bore Bond‘s baby. And like Lynd, Madeleine Swann is a multi-layered, intriguing character, played to perfection by Léa Seydoux in 2015’s Spectre and 2021‘s No Time to Die. Her casting brings the number of French Bond girls to oh-oh seven, starting with Claudine Auger in Thunderball and followed by Corinne Clery, Carole Bouquet, Sophie Marceau, Green and Bérénice Marlohe. Given the emotional impact they‘ve had, Seydoux won’t be the last French actress to leave 007 for dead.

So it’s not an overstatement, then, to say that without such a culturally rich country as France, 007 as we know him would not exist. Because here’s the most important point of all — Ian Fleming may have started off drafting what would become volume one of the series at his Goldeneye estate in Jamaica in February 1952 (just days after Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne), but in the 1950s the former naval intelligence officer stayed at two luxury French hotels that had a profound impact on the setting, storyline and aesthetics of Casino Royale.

Of all the exotic landscapes in France, Fleming picked its quiet and northern coastline — as far from the flashier French Riviera as it’s possible to be and remain in the same country (it’s much much closer to Britain in fact). The author even goes as far as inventing a complete back story to the city of Royale-les-Eaux, inspired by the upscale resorts of Deauville and Le Touquet, the first near Le Havre in Normandy and the latter a few miles south of Calais and Boulogne on the Côte d’Opale.

Both the Hôtel Barrière Le Royal Deauville and Le Touquet‘s Hôtel Barrière Le Westminster’s Casino de la forêt have competing claims as to where the refined London gentleman brought his fictional hero to life. Though Cabourg, 11 miles further west and where Marcel Proust wrote À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search Of Lost Time, a favourite of John Cleese) in the Grand Hotel, certainly seems to have been partly the inspiration for, at the very least, On Her Majesty‘s Secret Service.

A tale of 007 versus Soviet agents in a fictional French gambling resort, the first of the James Bond series largely takes part in a casino. Indeed, Fleming was acquainted with both locations: he had played at Deauville as a young man, drawing parallels with an actual World War II visit he had made to a Portuguese casino (Lisbon‘s Palacio Estoril) whilst working for the British secret service. Also in the 1940s, Fleming officially met his future wife Lady Ann O’Neill in the city of Le Touquet.

It‘s almost certainly the case that the writer drew inspiration from both of the hotel’s surroundings for the fictional casino of Royale-les-Eaux in Casino Royale. One thing is for certain, Fleming was sufficiently enchanted with the place that it was absolutely no coincidence that Sean Connery signed his very first James Bond contract with EON Productions on a Hotel Westminster table in 1962. Secondly, and more pedantically, the title Casino Royale actually has a grammatical error in French: “casino” is a masculine noun, “royale” a feminine adjective, an effort by Fleming to give the novel a French-sounding title.

Generally, the France of the 1950s was not an especially jolly era. Still recovering from the war, it was still a fairly rural country. Some old and new fortunes gathered in Paris, its sunny Riviera and other industrial cities, but the average French family was far from wealthy.

Fleming’s France was different. His version was more in keeping with the burgeoning luxury of Monaco and the Côte d’Azur. Though, from Èze to Nice and Villefranche-sur-Mer to the renamed Villa Octopussy (which is actually at Cap Saint-Pierre in Saint-Tropez, nowhere near Jamaica), the famed Riviera features in the films much more than the books. 

Aside from Bond tracking Goldfinger’s car through France in the story of the same name, Dijon and Paris are the main French cities described in 1957’s From Russia With Love. The French capital is where it’s revealed (in a later reminisce in From A View To A Kill) that Bond had lost his virginity at the age of 16. Moreover, the fifth book (and second film) is also the story where a Russian dossier about him details how the iconic spy spent two months in 1939 at the Monte Carlo Casino monitoring a Romanian group cheating before the Deuxième Bureau closed them down, culminating in a spooky epilogue at Paris’s famed Ritz hotel from where Princess Diana was later chased to her death.

With escapism and adventure paramount, the locations were ultimately the ideal antidote to Britain’s postwar austerity, rationing and the creeping realisation of lost power. As he presents it, however, the northern city Fleming describes is a fading one; far from the excitement of more dynamic destinations. However, the place still has that certain charm of its aristocratic past: old buildings with impeccable service; a sense of luxury concealing the economic downfall of the city; old bourgeoisie spending their fading fortunes, as well as the old ways of life living by the sea.

Like many other places that have been visited by Bond, Fleming provides us with an abundance of detail. And after Dr No was a box office smash, Fleming slightly retconned the character to provide the blunt instrument with a back story that gave him a Scottish father and a mother who was French-speaking Swiss.

And on that note, it’s time to say Goodbye Mr Bond. But if you wish to read more on Fleming and his offering of the titular role of Dr No to his Jamaica neighbour Noël Coward, well, here’s one I prepared earlier.

Steve Pafford, Nice

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