Letter From Paris

What Is Your Sign?

The all-important answer will tell the French who you are.

By From the December 2011 - January 2012 issue

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What kind of year will 2012 be? To be sure, for news junkies, policy wonks, and the chattering class, it will be the year of important elections in the U.S. and Europe, more financial cataclysms, and the usual coups and earthquakes. But how will it be for you personally? Will you win or lose a job? Get seriously ill? Receive a surprise inheritance from a long-forgotten aunt in Texas? Fall in love? Idle questions, you may say. But the better part of 60 million Frenchmen are convinced they already know how the year will turn out for them.

From radio, television, and Internet horoscopes to specialized astrology magazines, the French have been avidly pondering their psycho-astrological portraits and long-term predictions for the New Year. A cornucopia of confident forecasts for each of the 12 signs of the zodiac is available for all of 2012. One of the best-selling magazines proposes "an exclusive world-wide horoscope for a year full of danger." More optimistic ones promise "Happiness soon!" or "Pleasant surprises all year long!" As one magazine editor confides, "This time of year, sales jump by 20 percent when you put a horoscope in the book."

Many believers are making appointments with their usual astrologers to get a jump on the New Year. How much they actually depend on the Delphic, often contradictory predictions about the sub-lunar world is imponderable. But the fact is that they are willing to pay hard cash for them--upwards of $80 for a half-hour chat with Magda, Luzitana, Samia, or Chandrane. Current queen of the stars is the glam Elizabeth Teissier, who inaugurated TV astrology in France in the 1970s after brief "careers" in modeling and films. She claims a PhD in sociology from the Sorbonne and has written several books on astrology. Her latest one covers predictions for 2012–2016, "five years that will change the world." A safe enough prophecy, even without the fearsome dissonance she detects between Uranus and Pluto.

The French passion for astrology cuts across class lines, from concierges to government ministers and human resource managers of big companies. Some of the latter have fired their in-house psychologists and hired astrologers, convinced that a study of the stars is as valid as looking at Rorschach ink spots to see if a new executive will fit in with the corporate culture. That attitude is consistent with the French rejection of most of 20th-century psychiatric theory, starting with Freudianism. While a minuscule minority has gone in for psychoanalysis, most Frenchmen have other ideas of what a couch is for. And if they want to pay to talk about their unhappiness, they prefer to base the conversation on the heavens rather than on toilet training.

Nor is this proudly Cartesian nation bothered by the hobgoblin of a foolish consistency. Isn’t it irrational to believe that the position of celestial bodies at the hour of their birth somehow determines their character and influences the course of their lives? Do they notice that such credulity is paradoxical, to say the least, in the skeptical land of the Enlightenment and the culture that coined the term "intellectual"? Such naive questions will get you a head-shaking look of pity and a large, indifferent shrug.

Those new to Paris dinner parties are often surprised to see that they feature less rarified political and philosophical discussions than the ritual question with the first course, "Quel est votre signe?" He who cannot reply to his table companion with his zodiac sign, its ascendant and descendent in his seventh house, is an instant wallflower. Or worse, someone who is not quite comme il faut. "You can’t really get to know someone without their astrological portrait," a French widow of my acquaintance, a Scorpio, told me. "If I ever considered remarrying, I wouldn’t make a move without consulting my astrologer. In any case I know I couldn’t get along with a Libra."

This often leaves foreign observers, including this one, nonplussed. But the French can point to a long tradition of soothsaying going back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Strangely, most of their great cathedrals have astrological symbols incongruously sculpted into their columns and porticos and illuminated in their stained glass windows, right along with images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. The famous seer of the Renaissance, Provence-born Michel de Nostredame, called Nostradamus, was known in the 16th century as now for his book of predictions, Les Propheties, published in 1555 and still in print. He was a regular at the court of Catherine de Médicis, queen consort of King Henri II, where he served as official astrologer. To this day many Frenchmen believe he foretold historical events like the reign of Napoleon. They continue to scrutinize his cryptic writings for clues to the future.

But a century after Nostradamus, French astrology fell on hard times. It does, after all, suggest a mechanistic universe, our futures determined by the planets, leaving little room for free will. The Catholic Church attacked it for this reason and Colbert, the energetic chief minister of Louis XIV, banned it 1666. Luminaries like La Fontaine, Voltaire, and Diderot fulminated against "charlatans who make horoscopes." Astrology went into eclipse in France, only to shine again in the 20th century, tolerated, along with other concessions to human foibles, like gambling and prostitution.

Until astrology joined the computer age, the French made do with horoscopes in newspapers and magazines, along with the daily predictions broadcast every morning by major radio stations. Those who could afford it preferred a long, confidential chat with the likes of the felicitously named Madame Soleil--her real name. So popular was she that her clientele ranged from veteran Communist Party members to priests, along with a sampling of politicians and cabinet members. The political traffic in her salon got so heavy that, to avoid conflict, she had to reserve certain days for right-wingers and others for the left.

FRENCH ASTROLOGY WENT DIGITAL in the 1960s with something called Astroflash, the brainchild of a supermarket chain. It would be good marketing, they thought, to offer their starry-eyed customers computerized horoscopes. It became so popular that they opened a boutique in a mall on the Champs-Elysées. The computer, duly informed of place, date, and hour of birth, pumped out up to 500 personalized horoscopes a day at about $15 a shot. It is claimed that one of those was for a certain Charles de Gaulle, but it strains credulity to think the outrageously self-assured general needed that crutch to find out who he really was and how best to annoy les américains that day.

The Internet and e-mail have given the French still other ways to satisfy their insatiable craving for this stuff. Today astrology sites get more hits than any others in the country. In addition, more than a million subscribers receive their horoscope by e-mail every morning, to read along with their café au lait and croissant. In the land of toujours l’amour, one site has spun off a television channel programming not only hourly horoscopes, but also a "lovescope" and "Eroscope," the latter titillation viewable only after midnight.

French astrologers are being coy about how Nicolas Sarkozy, an Aquarius, will do in the 2012 election next April. "His astrological theme is very ambivalent," says Elizabeth Teissier with Delphic prudence. "It shows a big change coming up in his life, but its exact nature is unclear. Besides," she confesses with candor unusual in her profession, "elections are always unpredictable."

But other astrologers, while leaving plenty of latitude for interpretation, consider the omens tolerably good for Sarkozy. "You will benefit from good professional protection that will guarantee job stability for the long term," says one, "and you will be able to consolidate your career." That should help him decide to declare his candidacy, which all France awaits with bated breath as the Nouvelle Année begins. 

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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.