A jovial French civil servant was so determined to see his “depressed” compatriots grin that he turned to the courts with an unlikely mission: overturning a ban on smiling in passport photos or identity papers.
France is not the only country with such a restriction; security experts say facial-recognition scanners at airports can be confounded by open mouths or unusual expressions. Many other countries, like Canada and Thailand, require neutral facial expressions, though the United States allows a neutral expression or a “natural smile.”
But the French official, whose name has not been disclosed by the French news media, has argued that France, a country where a grimace can be worn as a proud accessory, needs to cheer up. Despite their professed joie de vivre, the French in recent years have ranked among the most pessimistic people on earth. And recent terrorist attacks have shaken the nation.
The official began his quest to change the rules two years ago, after his passport photograph was rejected for violating Interior Ministry rules. The rules, codified in 2009, stipulate that a person’s expression must be “neutral with the mouth closed.”
“Is it responsible, in a depressed France, for the authorities to reproach French people for smiling?” the man wrote in a letter that was obtained by Agence France-Presse. “Except perhaps they want them to continue making a sulky face on their identity papers, further weighing down the country’s morale.”
An appellate court was not persuaded. On Thursday, it affirmed a 2014 ruling by a lower court that upheld the ban on smiling. But the man has not given up, and his lawyer, Romajn Boulet, said he was considering whether to appeal.
Beyond the imperative to improve the national mood, Boulet argued that relaxing the smiling prohibition would buttress France’s image in the world.
This being the country of Sartre and Descartes, where even mundane questions inspire philosophical debate, the civil servant also cited the literary critic and philosopher Roland Barthes, and told the appellate court that he had identified the smile as the symbol of neutrality.
Moreover, Boulet argued that the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa showed that a person could convey happiness while retaining a neutral expression, and keeping his or her lips together.
His client, he added, had an “undertaker’s smile” in the photograph that French passport officials rejected, with his lips almost imperceptibly upturned.
The client remains upbeat, despite the setback. He spoke with reporters after the decision Thursday.
“The day started with a smile, and will finish, whatever happens, with a smile,” he said.