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.