Why it is time to stop idealising French women

As sexual politics hits the headlines in France, Lucy Wadham considers why the mystique of the French woman holds such enduring appeal
January 14, 2014

Trierweiler has checked into hospital to deal with emotional stress resulting from the French President François Hollande's alleged affair ©PA

French Women Don’t Get Facelifts by Mireille Guillano (Doubleday, £14.99)

For the past fortnight I have been suffering my way through a pile of books from a growing branch of the self-help tree, all inviting me to think, look, and generally be more like a French woman. La Française, I now know, has the answers to life’s problems. The titles alone should give a hint of what I’ve endured: Two Lipsticks and a Lover: Unlock Your Inner French Woman by Helena Frith Powell; Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier; Bonjour, Happiness!: Secrets to Finding Your Joie De Vivre by Jamie Cat Callan; Chic & Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food and Still Stay Slim by Anne Barone; and by the same author, Chic and Slim Encore and Chic and Slim Toujours.

As I read these books, all published over the past decade, I imagined their British or American target audiences throwing out their greying underwear, their comfy tracksuit trousers and their tasty ready meals. I saw them giving up their boxsets, their cosy, confessional friendships, and their girls’ nights out. I pictured them investing in improving literature, a poodle, a new “capsule wardrobe” with requisite little black dress (petite robe noire) and cultivating the legendary mystique of the French woman. The idea left me feeling more than a little depressed.

This flourishing arm of the publishing industry, which sprung up at the beginning of the 21st century, has become sub-genre all of its own, complete with its absurdly long subtitles and its own visual language—curling typography, slender 1950s cartoons of chic French women trailing miniature poodles, pull-out lifestyle tips and unfeasible oyster and champagne-based recipes. The books all embrace a canon of unchallenged myths, clichés and stereotypes designed to target the chronically dissatisfied and/or overweight women of the English-speaking world. Mireille Guillano, one of the pioneers of the genre, published her latest offering in January, under the brazenly fallacious title French Women Don’t Get Facelifts.

Guillano’s book exemplifies many of the worst traits of the genre. Quite apart from the thesis itself, which is built on the misconception that French women don’t “do” plastic surgery (nonsense—they’re ninth in the world, just behind the Brazilians and way ahead of the British), the book is a combination of the most excruciating Americanisms (“Go figure,” “Way to go” etc) and garbled Franglais: “The images touted in today’s media, often of celebrities, and then globalised, have made things worse… The psychological and emotional impact of state of mind has a huge impact on our ‘exteriors.’” The author makes an art of contradicting herself, sometimes in the same paragraph: don’t take vitamins, they don’t work. Well ok, take calcium and vitamin D, and a little oestrogen if you can get it—it does wonders for me. On page 59 she writes: “Sorry to be a bit of a tease but this book isn’t about actual facelifts—or about not having them. It is about facelifts in the sense of ageing with attitude and the decisions one makes through the decades.” Then a few pages from the end she writes: “This is one of the characteristics of ageing with attitude, recalculating the trade-offs of future rewards (or securities) against relatively instant gratification, because ‘What are you waiting for?’ It could be a vacation trip, cosmetic surgery or buying that piece of jewellery you’ve always wanted.” What on earth, I found myself asking out loud, is she talking about?

The same question could be asked of most of the authors of these books. None of the French women I’ve known over the past 25 years would recognise herself in these idealised portraits. What’s being championed here is not the actual French woman but some iconic vision of her, some devotional cipher onto which we can project all our fantasies, a salve for our own failings as women. Thanks to the worldwide success of Guilliano’s books (her 2004 book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, sold in 42 countries), French femininity, as a global brand, has become accessible to the masses, perhaps for the first time. It is, by extension, a model for everything we Anglophone women have lost in our post-feminist, consumerist world: refinement, discretion, moderation, and above all sexiness.

Guilliano should be congratulated for spotting this rich seam in the self-improvement market. An ex-employee of the luxury group LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and founder of the US branch of Veuve Cliquot, Guilliano, according to her personal website, increased the champagne house’s market share in America from 1 per cent to 25 per cent. She’s clearly a persuasive woman, for she even managed to convince fellow author Debra Ollivier (as in Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl) that Veuve Cliquot is the champagne to which le tout Paris aspires. (Actually, it’s probably Krug or Pol Roger). All these books echo Guilliano’s ditzy wisdoms: that French women live on a diet of champagne, chocolate and leek soup (!) and are, at the same time, paragons of moderation.

Alongside these panegyrics on French womanhood, a new category of books on French mothering has emerged. Examples include French Children Don’t Throw Food: Parenting Secrets from Paris by Pamela Druckerman and Why French Children Don’t Talk Back: What We Can Learn From French Parenting by Catherine Crawford. These books are considerably more measured in their praise of the French. (The widespread aversion to breastfeeding in France is generally cited as something not to be emulated, as is the ease with which French parents seem to smack their children). They seem to be a response to the ebbing away of good sense that we’ve seen, since the 1980s, in British and American, middle-class parenting. Pamela Druckerman’s funny and persuasive French Children Don’t Throw Food, published in 2012, is particularly eloquent on this subject.

Why has this publishing trend emerged over the past decade? Why, at a moment when French culture and ideas have never felt less influential in the world, are we being told to look to France for the answers to all our ills? Clearly, France, in our collective imagination, has become a nostalgic parody of itself. At the same time the French, all these writers agree, seem to have retained something that we’ve lost: a relatively healthy relationship to food, to our children, and to the opposite sex.

“The French girl’s secret?” writes Debra Ollivier. “She has been shaped by generations of independent feminine spirits (countless queens, courtesans, and traditional French mothers); by unspoken codes of social grace and courtly love: by a legacy of feminine guile and intellectual brawn.” Embedded in this piffle is a nugget of truth. The modern French “girl”—at least the middle-class, Parisian version of her—resembles her ancestors in a way that her British or American “woman” clearly doesn’t.

For when these writers invite us to ape French women, they omit to mention that the tricks lying behind her so-called mystique—dressing to seduce, hiding her beauty secrets, playing hard to get—are those of our mothers and grandmothers. The school of feminism that advocated policing the private sphere as well as the public one seemed to bypass France during the 1960s and 70s. French feminism, esoteric as it was, left the roles traditionally played by men and women virtually untouched, nor did there seem to be any appetite among the population at large to revolutionise private relations between the sexes. How else did someone like Dominique Strauss-Kahn get away with routine sexual harassment in the corridors of power for so long?

We’ve seen enough French cinema to know that French women are not expected to play by the same rules as we Anglos do. La Française is still allowed to behave with her menfolk like an overgrown, pouting toddler. The list of these creatures is long: from Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 Contempt (“Which do you prefer, my breasts or my nipples?”), to Isabelle Adjani as a moping nymphomaniac in One Deadly Summer (1983), to today’s version of the eternal femme-enfant, Vanessa Paradis. These women don’t have to be grown-up mainly because there has been little movement in France towards equality in the bedroom. French gender roles are not contractual (nor indeed are parent-child relationships) but hierarchical. That’s why there’s relatively little conflict. Judging from the success of books such as Mireille Guillano’s, we seem to find this state of affairs refreshing compared to the pitiless transparency of male-female relations in Britain and America.

Anthropologists often distinguish between what they term “shame cultures” and “guilt cultures.” Britain and America, according to this division, are predominantly guilt cultures while France is a shame culture, still steeped in notions of pride and honour. These ideals override those of truth-telling and transparency. In shame cultures, appearances are all-important (this might explain the elegant but highly conformist style and rigorous dress code so admired in French women) and there are dos and don’ts that serve as effective regulators and explain, perhaps, the relative ease with which French parents continue to bring up their children. You’ll often hear them simply telling their offspring that something (like throwing food) simply isn’t done: Ça se fait pas). Both parent and child internalise these norms and feel reassured by them.

By contrast, Britain and America’s Protestant heritage emphasises the individual’s conscience over the code. Social control is achieved, not through norms of behaviour but through the feelings of guilt triggered by an act of transgression. The internal policing inherent in our culture means that pleasure can easily become a trap. This explains the guilt that seems increasingly to surround certain foods. In America in particular, the excessive emphasis on diet has turned the eating of fatty foods—which French girls supposedly love—into a sin.

So what lies behind the French woman’s ineffable charm? For a start, because she hasn’t been entirely reconstructed by feminism, she’s playing a more traditional role. Secondly, she’s relatively free of the guilt that seems to emanate like toxic fumes from all areas of Anglo-American life—from parenting, to sexual relationships, to food. And lastly, she has a much more flexible relationship with the truth: none of my French girlfriends have any scruples about lying when it comes to dieting or plastic surgery, even to their closest friends. None of them have had lip jobs, even when they clearly have. Taking the lead from Catherine Deneuve (upheld in several of these books as the archduchess of “growing old gracefully”) the watchword in this matter, as in most matters relating to the mystique of the French woman, is deny, deny, deny.