Sacrées Françaises


I had a call the other night from Jon Henley of The Guardian, who had reviewed my book and wanted to talk about a piece he was writing about French women. It seems there has been a sudden onslaught of books on the subject, some of them written by Anglo-Saxon women driven by the question: what do they have that we don’t? And some of them by French women driven by the desire to tell us. Among the authors are Debra Ollivier, American author of ‘What French Women Know‘ and  Mireille Guiliano, the former executive turned lifestyle guru, who brought us ‘French Women Don’t get Fat‘.

Henley and I spoke for about an hour on the subject, covering the differences between catholic and protestant cultures when it comes to attitudes towards beauty and love, as well as the differing attitudes towards feminism and gender in Britain and France. Towards the end he asked me what I thought the key differences might be between French and British women – clearly an impossible question but one I still rashly attempted to answer.

I don’t think French women ever took on the patriarchy, not in its symbolic form anyway and that – for the continuing survival of the pleasure prnciple – they have accepted a certain level of symbolic domination by men. Back in the late sixties, as the feminist revolution swept through France, it was as if there was an unwritten agreement to leave the private roles that men and women played untouched by the new movement. French women would fight with the best of us for social and political equality but the feminist revolution, it was tacitly understood, would not enter the private sphere, or indeed the bedroom. As a result, French women, unlike British women, still feel completely unembarrassed about playing ‘traditional’ feminine roles: domestic goddess, temptress, petulant princess or (when necessary or possible) femme fatale. British women, on the other hand, feel they have to behave properly, that they have to earn men’s respect. French women feel that they play by different rules to men and therefore have little interest in earning their respect; what they’re after is their desire.


19 thoughts on “Sacrées Françaises

  1. Answering the impossible question might have been a “rash” attempt, but you wound up with a very cogent response. I’m buying this one.

  2. Call me an unredeemed male to your heart’s content, I persist in the stubborn belief that sex is all about hunter and prey, chaser and chased… and let’s not be fussy about gender roles.

  3. I’m not sure how current your version of the relationship between the sexes really is. A lot of my Parisian friends are now heading into their forties and divorcing, and I think one of the reasons is that where (as far as I understand it) in the recent past a wife would accept the existence of a mistress, this really is no longer the case. And this is causing a lot of upheaval for husbands who are quite happy with the old bourgeois model of marriage, and wives who are beginning to recognise that the personal is, after all, political. I liked your book but thought that your chapters on the relationship between the sexes were slightly dated – from where I live that old wife-husband-mistress triangle is looking a bit threadbare; the apparently dominated wife, cheerfully keeping house in her sexy lingerie, is biting back.

  4. It’s true, Natasha. The relationship I was writing about (my own) was being played out in the mid 80s and 90s, so it certainly wasn’t current. What stunned me at the time though was that the particular model you allude to existed, even then. It certainly didn’t in the UK where I came from.

    Today I turn to my children (21 and 23) to see what’s going on in France and I’m still stunned by the differences I see. Basically, the unwritten agreement that boys will chase and girls be chased, still holds. Similarly, the erotic power seems more spread out between the sexes here than it is in the UK, where young women definitely have the edge.

    One of the differences today is that French couples seem to be choosing not to get married, as if the spectre of the bourgeois triangle still haunts them and that to steer clear of the altar/town hall they might be able to eschew it. A voir…

  5. I’ve married the Frenchman, had the kids, moved to Paris – but all more recently than you, so I have yet to see from close to how teenagers negotiate the minefield of relationships in France (also I have only boys, so my understanding of teenage girls is bound to be from one remove). My memories of being a teenage girl in London seem to focus on being chased rather than chasing….

    But it’s certainly true that I seem to have a different kind of a relationship with my husband to the one my sister in law (french) has with hers, for example. She seems both more obedient than I am and more manipulative, an interesting combination – as though she manages to get what she wants whilst being dominated by her husband. You suggest that the domination is only symbolic, to do with sexy games playing – I don’t think so. I think the domination is the real thing, and when women get uppity the men want out.

  6. I’m not sure that domination can remain “symbolic.” I think the trick is to accept the domination as temporary (i.e. in the bedroom between certain hours). That way one gets to laugh about it during the off hours.

  7. Feminism in France is a not funny joke.

    I have had French women in their late 20’s tell me with pride that they are NOT a feminist.

    I have defended feminism at French dinner parties as a very necessary force of justice for all (including men).

    I have argued (with futility) that my name is NOT my husband’s name and will they please not use his name in conjunction with mine on official documents. At any gov’t or medical appt – I must listen for his name in order to be seen. For all the useless time I have spent telling them, that person is not me… Nicole (so and so) does NOT exist. I am told well, it is France and that is how they do it.

    Frankly, I don’t care one bit how the Frenchies are in bed, but their attitude about women’s rights in public is pathetic.

    Most French women are in some serious denial about their own reality. (I would say ALL, but there must be some French feminists out there).

  8. I entirely agree with Nicole on this. The whole discussion about sex here is a distraction from the huge problem in France of womens rights, gay rights and all minority rights. Paris is unbelievably racist and homophobic compared to London.

    I have lived in paris for only two years but my second hand experiences of employment practices in retail and the arts suggest that not only are equal opportunity ideas completely absent but all kinds of discrimination is openly accepted when it comes to employers selecting employees.

    An example or two. My partner, an actress felt that it was necessary to hide the fact that she had a child while trying to get work doing “doublage” (dubbing films) and that sexual availability was high on the list of skills needed for this work. Humiliating but accepted. She also noted that a black actress was seeking some legal support for being utterly ignored by all the “doublage” directors who found that casting black french girls in the roles played by black American actresses completely unnecessary.

    This is not “symbolic” dominance at all, it is rank exploitation.

    I could go on about the chocolatier whose advice to new franchise holders was don’t employ gay people or girls with big tits but it all beginning to sound so stinkily holier than thou that I think I’d better stop.

  9. How interesting, the emotion evident in these responses. I haven’t been watching but it would seem, from some of these responses, that the “woman’s” movement has lost some of the focus I remember from my youth. As a man looking at sixty, I can hear somewhere back in my mind from decades ago, a woman telling me that “falling in love is counter-revolutionary”. The last I heard she had been happy in a relationship for years. The validity of the institutional/state binding we call marriage is still a question… we can put (a man?) on the moon but we can’t figure each other out? As one who has stayed single, I both respect and sympathize with all this pain and frustration expressed, yet on the other hand, I wonder why so serious? We are subjects to the tides of hormones singing in our veins, otherwise, to quote a certain kind of businessman I usually find distasteful, “everything is negotiable”. Perhaps it is my circle, but “dominant” seems to be a very unstable state, one day/hour/minute the male, the next the female. To paraphrase James Brown, DON’T HIT ME! (huh!), but you can tie me up.

  10. I have to agree with Peter. There is I think, now more than ever, a need for a little distance when it comes to the question of gender. Embedded in your comment, Hugo, are a number cultural assumptions. One of them relates to the notion of minorities. Are women a minority? In Britain and America they are categorised as such but how useful is this, both for women and men? Does this not position women as victims by default? Is this label really an accurate one in developed societies such as ours?

    France is, very clearly, still a patriarchy. The examples you give of gender stereotyping only confirm this. What I am wondering after 25 years here is whether or not this cultural model is any worse for women (or men) than the highly codified, regulated and consequently guilt-ridden, post-feminist societies we have built in Britain and America (societies which, I would suggest, are no less patriarchal for all that).

    I think that the propensity to regulate our private lives that is inherent in our Protestant cultures, simply engendered a brand of feminism that we search for here but will not find. Must we impose our own cultural model on the French? If most French women have no interest in the label ‘feminist’, then why not give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are evolved individuals who have made a considered decision, rather than being either unemancipated or ignorant? Provided that there are not yawning gaps between the social, economic and political status of women in the two cultures then can we not, as Peter suggests, turn our attentions instead to such albeit nebulous notions as personal happiness, or harmony between the sexes? Or even examine our own assumptions about gender?

    I suppose, Hugo, that a useful question to ask might be this: does your partner suffer in any way as a result of the pressures inherent in the particular patriarchy in which she was born and raised…Or is it you who suffers?

    Bien a toi.

  11. Lucy, I didn’t think I was suggesting that women were a minority or even like a minority but just that like many minority groups in France they frequently seem to be barred from entry to certain social and economic advantages which are taken for granted by what appears to be large group of white middle class males. Of course there are exceptions everywhere but this is how it feels to me.

    I’m with peter on the sexual/personal side of this discussion in that I think everything and anything should be negotiable. It is just that in the public sphere where consecutive negotiations between one man and a number of women, say in job interviews, are not unlikely and if the man is given to assuming that he can bring the negotiating principles of the the private sphere to his work then someone or a few people are going to get fucked/exploited and they will almost certainly be women.

    My partner certainly did suffer as a result of the pressures and got little work once she decided to be clear that sexual favours were not high on the list of skills on offer when trying to find work. She changed after a year in London made her realise that is didn’t have to be that way. Or maybe she just hit 35 and the same would have happened in the UK. Personally I haven’t suffered at all, just got a bit angry and chippy as a result. I felt “guilt ridden” in the early 80’s, in the days when my girlfirends would go to Greenham but it wasn’t because of a highly codified, regulated cultural model it was because all men were bastards whether they behaved like it or not.

    Looking forward to reading your book, a ten day old baby is not making it easy to read anything (or even think anything) for now, but I will.

  12. I know a few women who did not want to change their sur
    names after getting married. They were all having serious nervous problems … As of being a feminist, that is of zero interest to me and all the women I know and socialise with. (by the way, I am not a housekeeper or an unemploeyed mother).
    I run my own company,I am married, I have children and I love being a mother, lover and wife 🙂
    I just don’t put an equal between what I am and my husband’s surname. Never bothered to :)))

  13. I read The Secret Life of France with some interest, having gone to the Sorbonne, married a French dentist; the put downs were on going, even when I rode with the Cadre Noir , they called out Allez Liverpool. I find that French women cannot be without a man, they love the theme Impossible Love. Perhaps I have did learn something in all those years, The more I know men the more I like dogs ! Re your comments on nobility, most of the Protestants were chased out of France, then they had the revolution, what was left ????

  14. I forgot to comment about your posting on French women vs British women. As an American of mixed race, like Obama, I guess we’re very much like the French in a sense of sexuality and economic self-sufficiency.

    I don’t think it is a matter of religion, (protestant vs catholic) but how one functions in their multi-generational family system. In this case, some women can be more focused on to maintain traditional roles, versus another child that is more free to be them “self” and not what is expected.

    I do think that Anglo-Saxon Caucasian women have more of a hang-up of family place and power. in the context of feminism. If I were to ask this question to my peers and students who were Latino, African or Asian American, they would really find it a curious debate between the French and British Caucasians.

    One things we do agree is that French women do know how to accessorize, but sex, hell, they simply their men in a way they want. Yet, I wonder if today’s French woman is truly content?

  15. Just on the specific subject of French women not getting fat, this article caught my eye in the IHT. I think it at least shatters the illusions and delusions many non-French people have of the French woman.

    Nestlé Bringing American-Style Diet Plans to Europe
    Published: March 7, 2010
    PARIS — Could U.S.-style diet coaching offer a solution to the rising tide of obesity in Europe?

    Nestlé, the Swiss food goliath, hopes so. It is bringing Jenny Craig, its quintessentially American line of consultant-driven diet programs, to Europe, starting in France on March 9.

    The product will then move to Britain during the second quarter, followed by other major European markets. Eventually, Nestlé plans to take Jenny Craig to urban centers in emerging markets, including India and China.

    Nestlé is betting that Europeans are ready to embrace a concept that has proved very successful in North America.

    Nestlé will not break out financial results for Jenny Craig, but executives say the business has been “increasingly profitable” since Nestlé bought it in 2006 for $600 million. Nestlé Nutrition, which manages Jenny Craig, last year posted sales of almost 10 billion Swiss francs, or $9.3 billion, a 2.8 percent increase from the year before. That represented 9.2 percent of Nestlé’s global sales.

    “We’ve done lots of research on different countries’ rankings of obesity, and Europe just jumped off the map,” said Patti Larchet, Jenny Craig’s chief executive. “It’s right behind the U.S. and Australia in percentage terms. People are really searching for an answer.”

    According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 billion people will be overweight in 2015, up from 1.6 billion in 2005. The organization also predicts that in 2015, 700 million people will be obese, up from 400 million in 2005.

    The W.H.O. defines “overweight” as having a body mass index of 25, while “obese” is over 30.

    By the numbers, France would seem to be a logical country in which to establish a beachhead. A study published in January by Inserm, the national health research institute, showed that 31.9 percent of people over 18 were overweight in 2009, up from 29.8 percent in 1997. In addition, 14.5 percent were obese, up from 8.5 percent in 1997.

    And despite the image created by best-selling books like “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” obesity has become more pronounced in that group. According to Inserm, 15.1 percent of French women were obese in 2009, against 13.9 percent of men. In 1997, 8.3 percent of women were obese, compared with 8.8 percent of men.

    “Studies in Europe have exceeded our expectations,” said Ralf Loehrl, head of weight management for Nestlé, Europe. “It’s a really big opportunity.”

    The Jenny Craig system is based on evaluations and coaching — by a personal consultant, either over the phone or face to face — as well as prepackaged meals, which are phased out as the dieter reaches his or her goals.

    In addition to the cost of the food — typically about $100 a week in the United States — there are membership fees. In the United States, members pay $20 for the first 20 pounds, or 9 kilograms, lost. After that, if they want continued advice, they need more expensive membership plans.

    In France, the cost will be €9.90, or $13.47, a day for three meals and a snack, without membership fees. The meals have been tweaked for the European market, with new dishes like couscous added.

    The company does have competition. Weight Watchers International, the pioneer in retail weight-loss programs, is well established in Europe. A range of low-calorie packaged meals and diet supplements by Slim-Fast, a Unilever unit, and Gerlinéa, by the French company Nutrition & Santé, are already on shelves.

    Perhaps the biggest obstacle comes from traditional European attitudes toward eating. In France, in particular, weight control typically has been accomplished by moderation and self-discipline, not prepackaged meals and a coach.

    “If you really want to tackle obesity, you have to act on a number of levels,” said Anne Sophie Joly, the president of CNAO, a group that represents obesity associations in France.

    Nestlé executives acknowledge the challenge but say that, in the end, Jenny Craig’s American heritage will be an advantage.

    “The French have a negative reaction to American food,” said Erick Moreau, chief executive of Jenny Craig, France, “but in terms of weight loss, the Americans have credibility here.”

    Jenny Craig was founded in 1983 by Sid and Jenny Craig, husband-and-wife health-club entrepreneurs in New Orleans who had noticed that exercise often was not enough for clients to keep the weight off.

    The couple sold the business in 2002 to private equity firms. By the time Nestlé bought it four years later, Jenny Craig had grown to 600 centers in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and Guam.

    At the time, the purchase was seen as a gamble for the Swiss giant, known for Kit Kat candy bars and Nescafé instant coffee. Since then, Nestlé has moved deeper into lifestyle brands, notably via its successful Nespresso coffee pods and machines.

    The weight-loss industry has had its share of controversy over the years, primarily over the claims made in advertisements, and Jenny Craig has not been spared.In February, the company settled a lawsuit brought in the United States by Weight Watchers International over claims made in ads featuring Valerie Bertinelli, a television child star from the 1970s, that “Jenny Craig clients lost, on average, over twice as much weight as those on the largest weight loss program.” Jenny Craig agreed to stop running the ads.To industry executives, the controversy comes with the territory. “Weight loss is a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S.” said Dr. Christine Gerbstadt, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “Advertising tactics never explain the full story for any product.”

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