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France Turning Its Back on ‘Le Halloween’

October 31, 2003

PARIS (AP) _ Five years after it took France by storm in a whirlwind marketing drive launched by a lone French entrepreneur, ``Le Halloween″ looks set to perform its very own disappearing act.

Parties, pumpkins and Halloween bar promotions are still on offer Friday night, but almost everyone agrees there’s something missing this year.

The only people really spooked are retailers.

Arriving almost two decades after ``trick-or-treat″ entered popular vocabulary in neighboring Britain, Halloween swiftly became a cash cow that few French marketing directors could afford to miss.

But Richard Roizen, the businessman credited with importing the festival to France, died earlier this year. Paris trend-watchers are predicting that Halloween will be buried with him.

As chairman and chief executive of Cesar _ once a brand of masks worn to 19th century balls _ Roizen transformed the firm into the world’s largest costume maker with annual revenue of euro122 million ($142 million).

Attending Chicago’s Halloween trade show, the annual gathering par excellence for makers of creepy masks and rubber spiders, he quickly grasped the potential for his home market.

``He struggled for years to bring Halloween to France,″ says Franck Matthais, head of advertising for French toy store chain La Grande Recre.

Things took off in the autumn of 1998.

``We were in a euphoric mood because France had just won the soccer World Cup,″ Matthais recalled. ``Halloween worked very well indeed.″

By 2000-2001, when it peaked, Coca Cola and mobile phone operator Orange had jumped on the bandwagon _ even though their products have no obvious connection to Halloween. Bakery windows were crammed with marzipan pumpkins and spidery confections.

Since then, however, Halloween has had ``less impact each year,″ Matthais said in an interview. Last year, he spent euro150,000 ($175,000) on spooky decorations for the toy chain’s 86 outlets, as well as in-store face painting for kids. And this year’s budget?

``Zero,″ he said. ``There are virtually no Halloween products in the shops.″

The same goes for the Bakery Julien, near Paris’s fashionable Champs Elysees, where there is not a single pumpkin in sight.

Instead, its window is adorned with figurines of saints. All Saints’ Day on Saturday, and Sunday’s Festival of the Dead, are major dates in the French religious calendar.

``We’re doing anti-Halloween,″ bakery owner Gontran Julien quipped.

Julien is not alone. Radio advertisements for Flunch, a fast food chain, urge diners to ``escape Halloween″ by seeking refuge in their restaurants, where they will instead be confronted with special menus celebrating the ``Ancient Gauls’ New Year″.

The chain is offering mead, a medieval alcoholic drink made from honey, for diners to wash down large slabs of meat and other foods deemed authentically Gaulish.

Flunch marketing director Sophie Gilleron said she felt the tide turn against Halloween last year. ``Besides, there are only so many things you can do with pumpkin,″ she said.

Elsewhere the culture clash is more serious. French Catholic youth groups plan to demonstrate for the second year running against what they see as Halloween’s trivialization of death.

Despite the omens, costume company Cesar insists Halloween, the source of 15 percent of its annual sales, will long outlive its late chairman _ mainly as an event for children.

``The French market has moved away from the gory side, it’s now more about being ‘scary but cute’,″ said marketing director Isabelle Geniez. ``It’s a good compromise.″

Nevertheless, the CREDOC _ a Paris-based sociological research institute _ says the writing is on the wall for Halloween.

Not only does Halloween seem to undermine the solemnity of Sunday’s Festival of the Dead, when some 9 million French people will visit relatives’ graves, it has also ``failed to create any of its own traditions,″ CREDOC director Robert Rochefort said.

``It was a fashion that worked very well,″ he said. ``But it’s become a victim of its own commercialism.″

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