In France their game is about life, not sex.
In fine old American families where tradition holds an honored place, the wisdom of the ages is passed down from father to son. One early dictum, when sonny is still in short pants, is the time-honored, “Never pass up the chance to take a leak.” When he starts school and has trouble with the inevitable recreation bully, the advice is likely to be, “The first stiff right to the nose usually wins.” Then, as adolescence arrives with its raging hormones, it’s time for delicate, tactful counsel on relations with the opposite sex. Here the only admonition better than “Always treat a broad like a lady, and a lady like a broad,” is surely the classic, “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.”
The French, of course, do things differently in the area of gender relations, as in most others. To help us understand their sly, convoluted approach, we now have La Séduction: How the French Play the Game of Life (Times Books, 352 pages, $27) by Elaine Sciolino. A longtime Paris correspondent for the New York Times, Sciolino holds that the key to just about everything in France, from romance to business, style, gastronomy, diplomacy, and politics, is seduction. We might have suspected as much. Along with élégance, the most overworked and overused word in the French language is séduction. No subject is safe from it.
When the pope visited Israel in 2009, for example, the French press had him “seducing” the Palestinians with a call for an independent state. Museums try to “seduce” new visitors with blockbuster exhibits. Milk producers don’t go on strike, they are said to be on a “seduction mission,” while the interior of a new car is touted as filled with “the spirit of seduction.” A politician reaching for first-time voters is trying to “seduce the young.” And so on, ad infinitum.
In our simple-minded way, we might think this obsession with seduction means the French are badly in need of a few sessions on the analysts’ couch. But no, Sciolino explains, this isn’t necessarily about sex. “In French, the meaning is broader,” she says. “The French use ‘seduce’ where Americans might use ‘charm’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain.’ Seduction in France does not always mean body contact.” Still, it is always used with the intention of winning over someone in a given situation, a mental form of arm-wrestling. As a line in an old film by the great French director Eric Rohmer goes (young man to young woman), “I love seduction for the seduction. It doesn’t matter if it succeeds. Physically, I mean.” At least he wasn’t a flatterer.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, we now know, is an extreme example of le grand séducteur. Long before he went to Washington to head the International Monetary Fund, many in France quietly admired him for having such an active, umm, social life. This didn’t seem to trouble his wife, Anne Sinclair. Asked in 2006, well before last May’s sordid caper in a New York hotel, if she suffered because of her husband’s reputation, she answered, “No, if anything I am quite proud! For a politician it’s important to seduce. As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, that’s good enough.”
Clearly the French give considerable thought to this. The celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy told the author, “Seduction is more than a driving force. Life is seduction. Civilization is seduction. What distinguishes men from animals is seduction.” Lévy’s wife, the Franco-American actress Arielle Dombasle, chimed in, “Seduction is not a frivolous thing. No. It’s war.”
French schoolchildren learn the tactics and strategy of this daily social warfare early. One of the first things they get is that their grades can vary by up to 40 percent depending on their looks and manner. (The French were shocked by the Monica Lewinsky affair, but not because of Bill Clinton’s behavior in the Oval Office; it was her pathetic lack of style they couldn’t take.) As time goes on, they master the tools of seduction.
One is le regard, a way of locking someone’s eyes with a deep, smoky look hinting at mysteries to be explored. And never wink. It turns out that French women not only don’t get fat—they would rather get hit by a truck than put on pounds — they don’t wink either. “It disfigures your face,” warns one seduction expert.
Another weapon is words. Nimble verbal banter is crucial, conversation being less a means of imparting information than a form of stroking. The frontal approach is to be avoided at all costs, being just too, too vulgar. The voice is kept soft and low — which is why Americans in Paris often seem loud to the natives. Private coaches can be hired to teach professional women how to eliminate unsophisticated chirpiness from their voices, and men to cultivate those irresistible lower tones.
Adolescents from good families can polish their seduction technique in the rallyes, ultra-chic parties where they can mix with their own kind without interference from the riffraff. Besides engaging in subtle banter with plenty of double entendre while locking eyes, they learn the fine art of the baisemain and its inflexible rules: never kiss a gloved hand or the hand of a young girl; kiss only the hand of a married woman; do so only indoors. And the lips should not touch skin, merely come close.
The basics acquired, apprentice séducteurs turn to the necessary accessories, starting with an alluring perfume. The theory is that the seduction target will be lured by irrational feelings inspired by a subtle — never, please, strong or obvious — scent, and be driven by emotion. Thus the French spend more than $40 per man, woman, and child annually on fragrances, more than any other people in the world. (Americans spend about $17 on average.)
Just as important is the right lingerie, for which French women spend nearly 20 percent of their clothing budget. The goal here is the peek-a-boo effect of concealment, or, as the connoisseurs of seduction say, hiding to show better. Arielle Dombasle, for one, declares she would “never, never, never” appear entirely naked before her husband, Bernard-Henri. Such gaucherie would be anti-erotic.
Lucky man, you might think. But not on his trips to the United States. Lévy, who spent months traveling in the U.S. to research a book on Alexis de Tocqueville’s time there, finally gave up on American women. “They don’t like being seduced,” he concludes with a shrug and little moue of disappointment. “I realized that in the U.S. I had to force myself to avoid showing a woman that I found her seductive, because I knew that instead of creating complicity between us, it would create a barrier.”
FRENCH POLITICIANS HAVE TO BE considered seductive. It goes with the territory. Jacques Chirac did everything he could while mayor of Paris, and later president, to promote the idea that he was hot. His baisemain technique was notoriously defective — instead of letting the kiss properly hover in the air, he planted it moistly on the knuckles — but no complaints were recorded. He deliberately let it be rumored that he had had the comely Italian actress Claudia Cardinale as mistress. True or not, the idea that he was a practiced if hasty ladies’ man was firmly held by the fair sex. “Chirac?” whispered knowledgeable Parisiennes. “Three minutes. Shower included.”
Giscard d’Estaing also worked hard on his image as an irresistible male. During his seven-year term as president, he boasted to Sciolino, “I was in love with 17 million French women.” One technique was to stare at them individually with a smoldering look when working a room or a crowd. “Was there some method or trick in this to influence and seduce?” he mused. “Presumably.” Giscard later published a novel relating the violent passion between a French head of state and a British royal, suggesting he might have had an affair with Princess Diana. Le tout Paris giggled.
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