Would You Trust Your Government If It Changed Its Font?
The French certainly think so.
“There where the State is present, acts, finances, its presence must be clearly identified.”
— French Government, April 2020 (transl. author).
At the beginning of April, the French government announced that it was to start using a new font on its website and in its official documents.
The change came at a time when exposure to government information was as high as it had ever been.
The restrictions imposed on the French public because of coronavirus have thrust the new font onto the screens and into the hands of millions of citizens in the form of advice pages and travel exemption forms.
The new font on the French coronavirus travel form. Gouvernement français / Public domain.
While it is tempting to view the use of La Marianne, as the new font is called, as a coincidence or a frivolous act of bureaucracy, it was every bit a deliberate move.
It is a means of exerting soft power over a population that, like almost everyone across the globe, currently finds itself scared and uncertain.
And the French government hopes that, every time someone picks up a form or views a webpage written in La Marianne, they absorb its subliminal message designed to reassure them.
La Marianne is a font of stability, of tradition, of clarity, and of transparency — and its association with the government imparts these same values on those leading the response to coronavirus.
La Marianne takes its name from the symbol of the French Republic, the female personification of the nation’s values, and a depiction of the Goddess of Liberty.
Marianne, a personification of the Republic. Photo by cineliv on Pixabay.
Her head, in profile, already sits within the French government’s official logo, and she also appears on French-minted Euro coins and some of the country’s stamps.
The values she embodies are part of the message behind the new font.
However, this isn’t just the story of a name, but rather of the typeface itself.
The capital letters are based on the Roman capitals, a symbol of France’s ancient roots, and a show of strength that plays on the image of the Roman Empire as powerful and enduring.
The lower-case letters are similar to those of the well-known set of Garamond fonts, invented in the 16th century by a French publisher of the same name.
Claude Garamond remains an influential figure in typography and a well-known figure in French history — the embodiment of French success, stability, and longevity in font form.
The new font also imposes a modern layer, to add to these references to French tradition.
The letters — and particularly the punctuation and accents — are deliberately basic. The letters are created from geometric shapes and reject additional decoration in favour of sharp, clean edges.
These updates to the Roman and Garamond features give the font an additional readability and imply transparency.
The letters don’t hide anything, and they want you to think that the government that employs them hides nothing either.
The decision to adopt a new font for official correspondence seems almost trivial and it can be difficult to view such insignificant changes as the deliberate work of designers and bureaucrats.
The lesson here is not that national governments around the world are attempting to brainwash their populations through the features of a typeface.
But it acts instead as a word of caution that nothing in the man-made world happens by accident or because of some natural order.
From sneaky product placement in films and subliminal messages in adverts to the advice of governments printed on their websites, nothing should be taken for granted.
So next time you see something, read something, hear something, question how and why it has been presented the way it has, and whom it is designed to serve.
Make up your own mind on what to believe.
I am a UK-based writer and journalist, interested in topics as wide-ranging as history and finance, politics and sport.