FRENCH writer Victor Hugo (1802-85) once told a delegation of Polish émigrés, "I am Polish because I am French." It was his way of noting the deep, long-standing ties between the two nations, both then struggling for freedom.
So, last spring, it seemed something of a reversal when French opponents of the European Union invoked the specter of a Polish plumber to encourage people to vote against the EU's constitution. The plumber symbolized emigrant workers who supposedly would steal French jobs if the constitution passed.
It mattered little that the French plumbing profession needs about 1,500 more practitioners or that, of the 550,000 Poles who went to EU countries to find work last year, only about 8,500 landed in France, compared with the 300,000 who sought employment in Germany and the 73,000 who went to Britain. On May 29, France rejected the EU constitution by 55%, thanks, in part, to the Polish plumber.
About the same time, Bartlomiej Walas, director of the Polish national tourism office in Paris, called his boss in Warsaw and said he thought there was another way to make the Polish plumber useful.
The result was an ad campaign featuring a handsome 21-year-old Polish model in a pair of off-the-shoulder green coveralls, holding pipes and urging French travelers to visit Poland. It appeared on posters and the Polish tourism website (www.polandtour.org) on June 17, seductively titled, "I'm staying in Poland. Come visit."
That campaign materialized so fast that, if you look closely, you can see the labels on the pipes he's holding.
Piotr Adamski, the Polish model who posed as the plumber, is an eyeful. That, together with the ad's cleverness — turning a slap into a slogan — won it international press attention and kudos from people all over France; they created a minor explosion of website hits and e-mail messages to the Polish tourism organization in Paris, Walas told me when I visited him recently in his office.
The tourism organization brought Adamski to Paris for a news conference; readied another poster that pictured him congratulating the city on capturing the 2012 Olympics, which, of course, had to be shelved when London won the Games; and created another ad that featured a comely nurse beckoning visitors to Poland.
It's too early to say whether the ads have affected foreign tourism to Poland in a quantifiable way, Walas said. Even before the campaign got underway, visitation had increased dramatically, with 31% more Germans visiting Poland in the first three months of 2005 than in the same period last year, 54% more Brits and about 18% more French traveling there.
Walas attributed the increases to Poland's admission into the EU on May 1, 2004. Since then, new budget airlines such as Centralwings have been offering cheap flights to Poland, especially from Britain. Prices are low in Poland, where a dental crown costs about $250, for example, a third of what French dentists charge, Walas said.
The country has prospered in many ways since joining the EU, with foreign investment and productivity rising. Poland is a major exporter of, among other things, escargots, primarily to France, of course.
But Poland's unemployment rate remains one of the highest in Europe — about 18% compared with 10% in France — driving Poles to seek work abroad and the French to worry. Walas said negotiations were underway to increase immigrant worker quotas in France. Meanwhile, the doors are open wider to Poles in Germany and England.
The unemployment issue is at the heart of differing attitudes about the EU in France and Poland. "At the time of the EU referendum, the Polish plumber had a very bad reputation in France," Walas said. "But it was completely crazy. There are also French people working in Poland."
The two nations have long shared a bond, from the Marquis de Lafayette's championing of Polish independence in the early 19th century to support for the outlawed Polish labor union Solidarity by French leftists in the 1980s.
In 1830, when an uprising against Russia, which then ruled part of Poland, failed, a wave of aristocrats, intellectuals and artists immigrated to France, turning Paris into a de facto Polish capital.
The beautiful 17th century Hôtel Lambert on Île St. Louis in the heart of Paris was the community's center, visited by such famous Polish émigrés as composer Frédéric Chopin (1810-49) and writer Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855). Around the corner on the little island in the Seine is the Polish Library, which has a small museum devoted to both men.
The relationship between France and Poland, like the one between France and the U.S., has experienced occasional thorny patches, as when Polish workers recruited by French mining companies in the 1920s were summarily repatriated. France bristled when U.S.-based Lockheed Martin, instead of the French Dassault Aviation, won a lucrative military aircraft contract from the Polish government in 2003.
And then came the Polish plumber, who gazes enticingly at me from the poster on my wall. Besides slightly elevating my pulse rate, he seems a mark of Polish generosity and humor, excellent motivation for anyone to visit Poland.
Susan Spano also writes "Postcards From Paris," at latimes.com/susanspano.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times