Has the role of seduction in France’s cultural zeitgeist made it “sick with sexism”?

The art of seduction has long been a tradition deeply ingrained in France’s psyche. From the cinematic legacies of French leading men to Serge Gainsbourg’s crooning mark on the country, or harking back even further to courtly love, chivalry, and gallantry in the age of enlightenment, France is intrinsically linked to its sense of romance and ooh la la – from the baisemain (a kiss on the hand) to the disconcertingly intense eye contact. And, unfortunately, more often than not the result is less Gaspard Ulliel being sexy in a Chanel advert, and more Patrice from The Inbetweeners.


Earlier this year, the French paper Liberation wrote, regarding France’s attitudes – “Français, nous serions, historiquement, des séducteurs. Français, au masculin. Car dans cette conception de la séduction, la femme est là uniquement pour consentir. (French men are, historically, seducers. They’re masculine. And in this model of seduction, woman’s only role is to consent).” Indeed, at the time of publishing, the Weinstein revelations were at their heights and conversations about how men treat women were absolutely everywhere – and in France, the conversation was louder than ever. The alternative to #MeToo was #BalanceTonPorc – literally, “expose your pig.” Of course, being France, meat had to be involved.

The main resistance to #MeToo, however, sadly but unsurprisingly came from France. 100 French women, led by one of the most famous French actresses of all time, Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter denouncing the “wave of purification,” the “hatred of men and sexuality,” and the attempted “censorship of desire.” And it is this complete, abject hatred of puritanism that is prohibiting France from making any kind of progress with how, Asia Argento put it, the French have been “lobotomised by an internalised misogyny.” Have we not progressed from the nineteenth century, where feminists were branded men-haters? Catherine Achin from Paris Dauphine University sums up the dilemma succinctly: “sous prétexte qu’il y a une séduction à la française, et qu’en France, on ne fait pas les choses comme ailleurs, on a masqué et excusé beaucoup de comportements déplacés”, (under the pretext of French seduction, and how we do things differently here, we’ve masked and excused inappropriate behaviour”).

The main reason as to why a country as seemingly developed as France is so backwards with how it treats its woman is their often stubborn hatred of American influence, and how they refuse to succumb to the puritanical hysteria of censorious moral beliefs about sex. A speechwriter at the Foreign Ministry named Pierre-Louis Colin wrote a frankly outrageous book which the French public barely batted an eyelid at, in which he wrote about how he wanted to fight the “righteous” Anglo-Saxon-dominated world, and about how “the greatest marvels of Paris are not in the Louvre, they are in the streets and the gardens, in the café’s and in the boutiques. The greatest marvels of Paris are the hundreds of thousands of women whose smiles, whose cleavages, whose legs bring incessant happiness to those who take promenades.” That simply wouldn’t fly outside of France; in fact, it sounds like some sort of awful parody.

File Photos of Jane Birkin
Serge Gainsbourg, Jane Birkin, Catherine Deneuve in 1977

While working at Vogue Paris, I’ve noticed a certain discrepancy in the Facebook comments when posting photos and news stories of American and French women. American women posing in skimpy clothing like Kim Kardashian or Emily Ratajkowski are vilified; but when Jane Birkin (essentially a Frenchwoman in this context) gets her tits out, everyone clamors to call her a hashtag icon. Tits are tits, so why are one pair more vulgar than the other?

Even secularism is being linked to the French tradition of seduction. France has a public ban on full face coverings and burkas, and Claude Habib, a specialist in eighteenth century literature, wrote that “the French tradition of gallantry demanded an encounter with the female face, which the veil denies. The veil interrupts the circle of coquetry.” It’s such an interesting notion, about how in France women’s faces must always be on display – they literally cannot hide them.

In a much-talked about speech that was delivered at the end of 2017, again in the Weinstein whirlwind, President Macron admitted that France is “sick with sexism.” I talked a lot in an article I wrote in October 2017 about how the government are trying to tackle this deeply embedded sense of sexism. Macron announced plans to wage war against street harassment, starting with a ban of wolf whistling, and French Gender equality minister Marlene Schiappa made her definition of harrassment abundantly clear -“you are a woman in an underground train. I am a man. I follow you. You get off the train. I get off. You get on another train. I get on too. I ask you for your telephone number. I ask again. I ask a third time. You feel oppressed. That is street harassment.” Unfortunately, Macron was right – France is sick with sexism, and laws and words aren’t the cure. And this issue shows more than ever that a cultural movement, even stronger than #MeToo, is needed.


Interesting further reading





La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino


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