Born in Paris in 1930, Francoise lived through the horrors of the city being occupied by the Nazis.
After the war, she became a drama student at the prestigious Cours Simon in the city. Her boyfriend was another student, Jacques Carteaud.
One day in 1950, when Francoise was just 20 years old, the couple were sitting in a café on the Left Bank. They were approached by a man with a camera.
He was photographer Robert Doisneau.
Doisneau had been sent to Paris by the American magazine Life, and was commissioned to photograph images of love in a city recovering from war. He said to the couple, “I’m Robert Doisneau. I find you both charming and wondered if you would accept to kiss again in front of my camera.”
The couple agreed. Francoise remembered, “We couldn’t stop kissing. We were kissing all over the place, all of the time. Doisneau was in the bar. He asked us to pose for him.”
The couple agreed. He took many shots of them kissing, in many different places in the city. His favourite shot was a kiss outside the Hotel de Ville (although they were also photographed at the Place de la Concorde and in the Rue de Rivoli).
He paid them 500 francs and then gave Francoise a signed (and dated) photo of the Kiss by the Hotel de Ville.
She said, “Monsieur Doisneau was adorable, very low key, very relaxed.”
The pictures were published in Life magazine but made little impact. Francoise thought nothing more of them.
Shortly afterwards, the couple split up. Jacques got married and became a wine maker.
Francoise did become an actress, appearing in some forgettable 1950s B-movies.
In 1962, she married film producer and screenwriter, Alain Bordet. He produced adverts and industrial pictures. Francoise did the voice overs for his films.
The couple lived in Evreux in Normandy.
In 1986, a poster company bought the rights to the picture of the kiss. The image suddenly took off in popularity, right around the world. As well as posters, there were postcards, calendars, key fobs, tea towels, chocolate boxes – all kinds of memorabilia.
It was described as, “Capturing the romance of Paris – a kind of black and white nostalgia of Paris and a monument to young love and spontaneous romance”. (Irish Times)
Francoise herself said, “It’s a symbol of a happy moment.”
The picture appeared on the front cover of the French culture magazine, Telerama, in 1988.
It was then that another couple came forward, claiming it was them on the photo. They were Jean Louis and Denise Lavergne. They also demanded a percentage of the profits from the picture.
Under French law, any individual owns the rights to their own images. The Lavergnes sued Doisneau.
The case went to court, where Doisneau, in his defence, was forced to name Francoise and Jacques Carteaud as his subjects.
She agreed to appear in court, where she produced the signed photograph Doisneau had given her. He won the case.
Francois was furious at the claimants. “It was as if they had stolen my memories – and they were delightful memories of youth, pleasant and tender”.
She did lose a simultaneous court case though, asking for a share of the profits that were being generated by the poster company. It was deemed that although it ‘probably’ was Francoise being kissed, her face (and that of Jacques Carteaud), were not identifiable, therefore it could not be 100% certain it was them.
Francoise accepted the ruling gracefully. Carteaud did not. He started an unsuccessful campaign to get the money and was interviewed by La Monde.
Robert Doisneau died in 1994. In one of his last interviews, he was asked about his Paris pictures. “ The world that I tried to show, was a world where I would have felt good, where people were kind, where I found the tenderness that I want to receive. My photos were like proof that world exists.”
He also emphasised that the photograph of the Kiss by the Hotel de Ville had been staged and was not spontaneous as some critics had claimed. “I would never have dared to photograph people like that – lovers kissing in the street”.
In 2005, Francoise and her husband Alain, decided to put up for auction the photo that Doisneau had given her.
It raised 185,000 Euros and was bought by an anonymous Swiss buyer.
In 2006, Jacques Carteaud died.
Alain died in 2013.
That same year, another claimant came forward. He was Marc de Mauregne, who claimed the woman was Rolande Dupuis, who lived down his street in Paris. Rather bizarrely, he claimed the photo was taken in 1945 or 1946, not in 1950.
This claim was easily dismissed. Francoise was able to refer to the signed photograph, which Doisneau had also dated – 1950.
Francoise lived quietly in her last years and died at home, on Christmas Day in 2023.
Reporting Francoise’s death, journalist Margot Nicodeme said, “She has left behind her, a kiss for eternity.”
Upon her death, the Deputy Mayor of Paris, Emmanuel Gregoire said, “Au revoir, dear Francoise Bornet.
RIP – Robert’s Incredible Photograph