Culture / Lifestyle

The Nordic Life of the French Capital

Sweden’s Ambassador to France HIS EXCELLENCY MR. HÅKAN ÅKESSON, director of the Petit Palais CHRISTOPHE LERIBAULT, and the team at Svenska Affären discuss the presence of Scandinavian culture in Paris…

Xander Brett

In the seventeenth arrondissement of Paris, there’s a mini Stockholm. Complete with a Lutheran church and primary school, the Swedish language is as common on its streets as French. Over in Neuilly-sur-Seine, there’s a Swedish lycée, and in the fourth arrondissement sits a branch of the Svenska Institutet. For Svenska Affären, a Nordic-inspired café opposite the church on Rue Léon Jost, the situation couldn’t be more perfect. Affären divide their premises between a café-cum-restaurant and a well-stocked grocery store. From the outside, the smell of kannelbullar fills the nostrils. I’m told they came second in Paris’ kannelbullar competition, and that was only because the judges ate the buns when they were too dry.

“The Parisians are curious,” says the half Swede serving customers at the counter. “They smell what we’re cooking, and they come in.” Affären’s customers are half expats, half French, and they serve both Swedish classics (for the French) and hard-to-find rarities (for the Swedes). Despite IKEA’s success, and airings of ‘Nordic noir’ on French television, Swedish culture is still relatively hard to find, and the French often struggle to understand it. “For example,” I’m told, “in Sweden we serve ourselves coffee. In France people wait for you to bring it.” Nevertheless, Parisians seem to enjoy the change in atmosphere from the bistros and brasseries.

“There are about 30-40 thousand Swedes in France,” says His Excellency Mr. Håkan Åkesson, Sweden’s ambassador to France. “About a third of us live in Paris and another third in the south.” Mr. Åkesson says that while Swedish culture is respected in France, the fact that the two countries are not neighbours means countries like the UK and Germany have an easier way in. When I ask about the similarities between France and Sweden, Mr. Åkesson says they’re mostly political. “We both pay high taxes for strong welfare state,” he explains.

Princess Marie of Denmark on 22nd September 2020, opening L’Âge d’or de la peinture danoise at the Petit Palais, Paris

At 11am in the Petit Palais, a gallery just off the Champs-Elysées, an exhibition of Danish Golden Age paintings is already full of visitors. Supported by public broadcasters Radio France and France Télévisions, and favourably reviewed in national broadsheets, the exhibition is one of France’s primary destinations this month. With limits on entry due to Covid-19, the Petit Palais’ director, Christophe Leribault, says they’re already having to turn people away. “There are Danish paintings in the Louvre,” he explains to me over the phone, “and after successful exhibitions of Danish art at the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Jacquemart-André, Parisians know what to expect.” 

Mr Åkesson says the loans to this exhibition from across Scandinavia was typical of pan-Nordic cooperation. “We’re different countries,” he explains, “but we know that we’re stronger together.” With over two hundred works on loan, L’Âge d’or de la peinture danois was inaugurated on 22nd September by HRH Princess Marie of Denmark. She, like Prince Henrik, late husband of Queen Margrethe, is French. I ask Christophe Leribault whether these royal links had any effect on his relationship with the Danish establishment.

“Our relationship was cordial and diplomatic,” he replies. “The Danish authorities were very patient when we had to reschedule due to the pandemic.” Leribault tells me how Denmark has always been admired by France as a country of social and political cohesion. “Historically,” he explains, “France and Denmark were never at war, and we had very few problems. We love their art. Perhaps Danish artists were more isolated than our own, and those from England, but that’s fascinating.”

This article has also been published in Nordic Style Magazine.

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