Once again the British media has been caught drooling over French political eye-candy and lamenting the general homeliness of our own parliamentary matrons. This time it was 39 year-old, Christine Kelly, former journalist and head of the CSA (France’s broadcasting watchdog) who was rumoured to be replacing Justice Minister, Rachida Dati – another hottie in Sarkozy’s cabinet. ‘Knockout Lovely’ or ‘Oh Yes, Minister!’ went the British headlines. As it turned out, the rumour was unfounded and Angelique Chrisafis wrote a very good piece in The Guardian, deriding the tabloids for their Benny Hill puerility and offering a short lesson on French gender politics. “The British hopelessly misunderstand French gender politics,” Chrisafis argued. This was not about Sarkozy “assembling a chorus line of glamorous women” but about effective political symbolism in a nation where only 14% of MPs are women (20% in the UK): “Sarkozy has done more than any other French president to appoint women to serious positions in cabinet.”
Chrisafis is right: Sarkozy is indeed advancing the cause of women and his choices are not conditioned by his machismo. But that is not the key to this little vignette of Anglo-French misconstruction. The main point is that French men and women are allowed to look glamorous. They have permission to aspire to beauty. In our (Protestant) culture, where appearances are to be mistrusted, we are not, and if we do, we are made to feel a little guilty about it. Hence the total bemusement in France every time the British press gets into a frenzy about unabashed feminine beauty. (Remember the fantastic Sun headline “Mrs. Starkerzy Arrives in Britain” ?) In French culture beauty is just another attribute to be prized and enjoyed. Perhaps we need to calm down a little and ask ourselves if it’s time to examine the legacy of guilt which surrounds both beauty and sexuality in our culture.