A French gala fit for a Sun King

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A French gala fit for a Sun King

Back in the late 19th century, a small group of French sailors and missionaries traveled months to come to Korea. They probably had little idea their mission to an obscure country in Asia would lead to a full-blown relationship in the years to come.
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This year is the 120th since diplomatic relations between the two countries were forged, so countless celebratory events ― political, economic and cultural ― have packed the 2006 calendar, keeping leaders from both countries busier than ever. So, why not a night to enjoy and indulge in things French?
A night of luxury was held Saturday evening at the Grand Hyatt, in central Seoul, where the French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry organized an elegant gala dinner. The event has been a chamber tradition since 1990. This year, a night of entertainment was presented for 160 chamber members and their business partners.
This year’s theme was “Jardines a la Francaise,” or “French Garden,” inspired by the garden in Versailles, where sumptuous banquets took place under the reign of Louis XIV, also known as the Sun King.
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In his opening speech, Philippe Li, the president of the French chamber of commerce, referred to the 20th anniversary of the organization. “A bright future and hope lie ahead for both France and Korea,” Mr. Li said, in French and Korean. “In France, 20 is the age of beauty and youth.”
In the evening, guests dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns sipped champagne in the hotel foyer, then were led across a fresh grass carpet (instead of the traditional red carpet) into a fairy tale French palace garden. With waiters dressed as valets from a 15th century French court, live Baroque music and the hotel’s own waterfall as part of the classic Gallic decor, the dinner party was French enough to appease any ghosts of early French settlers that might haunt the city. The theatrical decorations and table settings, featuring custom-made gilded showplates, certainly impressed the more than 700 guests of multinational backgrounds.
The French gala differs in its purpose from other much-publicized annual balls organized by American and British expatriates. While those balls raise money for local charities and are voluntarily organized, mainly by the wives of foreign businessmen stationed here, the French chamber’s gala dinner is planned by chamber members and is intended for “business networking,”
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according to David-Pierre Jalicon, a chamber member in charge of organizing the annual extravaganza. Any proceeds from the event are used to fund the operation of the chamber, a non-profit organization, which promotes trade mostly through counseling and publishing periodicals and books.
At the lectern, Philippe Thiebaud, the French ambassador to Korea, said that the two countries would probably reach their 2009 goal of doubling trade volume, by the year 2007.
At the gala dinner, however, business leaders, their spouses and partners seemed to have put their work aside.
Except for a couple of brief keynote speeches by Mr. Li and Mr. Thiebaud, and a 30-minute performance by singers from the French-Canadian musical “Don Juan,” the stage was reserved for Ida Daussy, the night’s master of ceremonies. The loquacious former actress made frequent use of Korean slang, bringing forth plenty of laughter.
While feasting on a seven-course dinner, featuring foie gras and chicken liver, a coulibiac (a Russian-style baked pie) of salmon with champagne sabayon and salmon roe and beef bourguignon with potato mousseline, the diners dressed to please.
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The partygoers knew the current language of fashion ― that black is back ― except, of course, for a handful of ladies who wanted to stand out in Chinese cheongsam, or colorful brocade gowns. Some outfits carried a simple elegance, such as the mauve Michael Ong dress worn by Grace Baudy, the wife of Bulgari Korea president Gerome Baudy, and an ebony Jenny Packham dress and matching marabou fur on Chang Sung-eun, the chief operating officer of Givenchy Korea.
The air of elegance was disrupted by the arrival of Daniel Henney, the Korean-American-model-turned-national heartthrob. Mr. Henney, dressed casually in blue jeans and a trilby hat, was accompanied by Korean singer Ok Ju-hyeon. His table was besieged by a throng of fans, which caused him to leave the party as quickly as possible.
Before the garden turned into a discotheque for the Sun King and his fans near midnight, door prizes began to be handed out to guests who paid 20,000 won ($17) each to enter a raffle. The handouts, from travel packages to Cartier watches to a new car, were designed to highlight the results of active trade negotiations between France and Korea, according to Carine Lebecque, the executive director of the French chamber.
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This year, BNP-Paribas, which owns about 3.8 percent of Korea’s Shinhan Banking Group, increased its share in Korea Deposit Insurance Corporation to 5.6 percent, becoming the biggest shareholder in Shinhan Banking Group. Philippe Reynieix, the general manager of BNP Paribas, donated a travel ticket worth 1.5 million won.
Jean-Marie Hurtiger, the chief executive of Renault Samsung Korea, donated an SM7, the biggest prize ever donated for a chamber event.
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“We have increased our production in Busan by 35 percent, and of the total production, we’ve begun to export 30 percent overseas, mainly to Russia. All of these great things happened this year,” he said, beaming, before handing out the car key to the night’s big winner, a Korean fashion stylist, Shim Ou-chan.


by Ines Cho

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