Unlocking the Secrets of French Women

American journalist Debra Ollivier lived in France for more than 10 years, married a Frenchman and had two children. Now she divides her time between Los Angeles and Paris and spends a lot of time thinking about the differences between French and American culture -- or more precisely, the differences between French and American women. Why is it everyone finds French women so sexy? Why are French women so fascinating? Why so chic? Why so thin? Ollivier has some answers in her book "What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind," published last month by Putnam.

GUEST BLOGGER: Debra Ollivier

Even before Marie Antoinette's head ended up in a basket, we've been intrigued by French women. Witness the waves of books about them that continue to be written. But why, truly, do these creatures have such enduring cachet in the hall of fame of sexiness and allure? There are many myths and clich├ęs about them that simply aren't true, after all. French women do get fat. They're not all femme fatales. They don't invest half their life savings in lingerie.

Then again, there is something about French women we just can't seem to define. It's called, famously and appropriately enough, that "je ne sais quoi" -- or, literally translated, that "I don't know what." After living more than a decade among the Gauls, I was more interested in the culturally-brewed realities behind that infuriating term. Here are a few byte-size samples:

--French women are self-possessed; even slightly defiant. Why? Partly because they don't grow up with the mandate to be liked and be like everyone else. There's no word or concept for "popularity" in France. Imagine growing up without that pressure. No wonder French women don't seem to give a damn what we think of them. (News flash: They don't.) When it comes to relationships, that self-possession serves them well. If a man's Just Not That Into Her, a French women generally Just Moves On.

--Where we grow up picking flowers and pondering love with "He loves me, he loves me not," the French grow up with this refrain: "He love me a little. A lot. Passionately. Madly. Not at all." How unfair. We think in terms of total love or absolute rejection. They think in degrees of passion and possibility.

--French feminist Sylviane Agacinski once said: "We want the power to seduce and be seduced. There will never be a war of the sexes in France." (Likewise, Louis XIV of France once declared: "Under a king, a country is really ruled by a woman.") And so it is. French men and women actually like each other. A lot. Flirtation is a civic duty in France, not a menace. French women generally prefer men to be in the picture, not out of it.

--French women do not believe in how-to and dos-and-don'ts, which gives them a certain freedom to live as they please. They're also not fond of rules and they're private, not public. There is no Doctor Phil in France.

--French women generally have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure. We generally have a keen sense of the brevity of pleasure and the immediacy of the future.

--The pursuit of happiness is written into our constitution and the Happy Ending is written into our culture. Not so in France. The French are suspicious of happily-ever-after and exalted standards of happiness or moral perfection. They're simultaneously romantic and realistic. If something seems too good to be true, the French tend to think that it's not.

--The French enjoy being grown-ups. They do not believe in being forever young. You will never see a French woman wearing a t-shirt that says "Life begins at seventy." (Because it doesn't.)

--The French are more interested in having a life than making a living.

--French women are matter-of-fact about the body. Contrary to popular opinion, they do not dramatize or sensationalize sex. They're also not any more adulterous than we are; they're simply more willing to concede that passion grows in unexpected places. (In fact, according to an exhaustive comparative study, the French have a fewer number of long-term affairs and Americans have a larger number of short-term affairs. "The French are marathoners, and Americans are sprinters," according to one researcher. In other words, we all push the marital envelope; we just wear different running shoes.)

--The French don't covet packaged cookie-cutter beauty, au naturel is de rigeur, and less is truly more in France.

These are, of course, the more redeeming aspects of French women. There are many reasons to love and hate the French, and countless books have been written about the latter part of that sentence. The point here is not to exalt French (though they do have a peculiar tendency to provoke extreme reactions in us), but to consider what we might learn from their cultural attributes - because as Descartes once put it, it is "good to know something of the customs of different people in order to judge more soundly of our own."

By Steven E. Levingston |  October 21, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Two comments -

There might not be a Dr. Phil but many French go to psychologists or psychiatrists. Freud is still in vogue.

The women here wear blue jeans and black trousers. Not a whole lot of originality. Black, black everywhere.

Posted by: cmecyclist | October 21, 2009 7:22 AM

Not to nitpick - but Marie Antoinette, while a French queen, was not French by birth, she was Austrian. And was hated by French women of her time.

Posted by: pojo68 | October 21, 2009 1:23 PM

Great article. We Americans have no idea how life is in other cultures, let alone accept that many things may be BETTER outside our self-styled "Greatest Country on Earth." The balance and quality of life enjoyed by the French is a good example.

Bravo. More like this, please.

Posted by: DupontJay | October 21, 2009 3:39 PM

Two words:

ARM PITS.

Posted by: bs2004 | October 21, 2009 4:11 PM

"Why is it everyone finds French women so sexy? Why are French women so fascinating? Why so chic? Why so thin? "
Really? I don't. I hate French women. Arrogant, dress like prostitutes, full of themselves, ...

Posted by: oldahmed | October 21, 2009 4:14 PM

Thank you, Debra.

As a mature American woman who has been abroad very little (only once to France), I have always appreciated European adults who venture to the States. They are so much more mature, realistic, and approachable than the average self-centered American man or woman.

And as for love-making, American men have much to learn about making mature women happy in bed. U.S. men of all ages rarely mature past adolescence sexually and demonstrate a selfish obsession with their own pleasure, seldom really trying to understand and respond to a woman's needs.

If I could afford to move abroad, I'd go to the Continent, toute suite.

Posted by: CandidObserver | October 21, 2009 4:32 PM

We just returned from a vacation in Paris and noticed a few things in line with this article. French women seem to know how to put together clothes and do a better job presenting themselves, whether clothes or makeup or little makeup, than American women. I was surprised to see so many young women without tattoos, unlike walking in American towns. It seems French women get attention without them. But there is far too much smoking going on in Paris.

Posted by: llrllr | October 21, 2009 6:56 PM

Hairy armpits and body odor are not "chic" or "fascinating". Then again french men don't deserve any more than that.

Why are there trees along the Champs Elysees?
So that the Germans don't have to march in the shade.

Posted by: oldno7 | October 21, 2009 7:31 PM

Who gives a d*mn? American women are bombarded with hundreds of magazines, commercials, and self-help books commanding that we act a certain way, buy certain cosmetics, wear certain clothes, and so on. Even Oprah, perpetuating the idea that all we need to make us happy/beautiful/perfect is another ________, throws gift baskets at her guests like some kind of trinket fairy. The underlying message is always the same: "you're not good enough the way you are." This article is just one more piece of merde added to the pile.

Posted by: EdgewoodVA | October 21, 2009 7:38 PM

Two comments I love...the French are grown-ups, and the French are private, not public. Not necessarily qualities I think are "French"...but qualities I love when I find them.

Posted by: mlc2 | October 21, 2009 7:42 PM

Although I am only passingly familiar with French women, I'm always suspicious of assertions that "there is no concept of x in y culture," in this case popularity and French. Cultural differences are far more a matter of relative emphasis than of something missing entirely or overwhelmingly dominant.

I'm still trying to parse the passage about long-term and short-term affairs. Is the assertion that the French have fewer affairs -- period?

After an adult life lived mostly in other cultures, I mourn the absence -- and condemnation -- of flirting in modern US society. It's a heartwarming little joy in life.

And speaking of unsuccessful attempts to parse a bit of writing... "Why are there trees along the Champs Elysees? So that the Germans don't have to march in the shade." It makes as much sense as the rest of the post, though.

Posted by: Tito_John | October 21, 2009 8:08 PM

cmt-you've said nothing-"black black everywhere" is de rigeur EVERYWHERE! HERE TOO, IN THE MAJOR INTERNATIONAL CITIES-AND ALL OVER THE WORLD-EVEN IN TROPICAL INTERNATIONAL LOCATIONS SUCH AS BANGKOK, SINGAPORE, KUALA LUMPUR, MALASIA!

Posted by: schmetterlingtoo | October 21, 2009 8:56 PM

French women? I adore them. Every centimeter.

Posted by: steve60 | October 21, 2009 9:18 PM

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