Cristina Odone implores the French to shape up

The French are satisfied with themselves; the British strive to become superior beings

The number one bestseller in France is What is a Successful Life?, a philosophical book by Luc Ferry, the secretary of state for education. The tome is peppered with references to Seneca, Nietzsche, Marcus Aurelius - and that is within the first 20 pages.

The number one bestseller in Britain is What Not to Wear, a book that accompanies the BBC TV programme of the same title, starring Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine. Chapter headings include "Big Tits", "Flabby Tummy" and "Short Legs". The guide includes step-by-step instructions on how to choose flattering cuts and mask heinous flaws such as a fat derriere.

How about that for an indictment? Of the French, I mean. Walk about Paris or Arles or Lyons and you'll find French men and women sitting about cafes, posing like latter-day Sartres and de Beauvoirs as they sip their coffee and prattle on about the meaning of Life, the World and the Universe. There they sit, exercising their jaws, gazing at their navels - in an unconstructive stasis. No effort at self-improvement, no attempt to reinvent themselves. It is not only pretentious, it is presumptuous: voila, I am as you find me - and that should be good enough.

Look instead at the Brits, who purchase books that promise a guide to making the most of their less-than-perfect selves. Humbly, they buy into the aspiration of a "new me", knowing that it will require some patience, some rethinking and a lot of very hard graft. Armed with a belief that anything is possible, they will follow guidelines, accept edicts, rethink priorities in order to, at the end, be transformed into a much superior being. A whole industry - not just books - has grown out of this desire to work at being the best you can be: lifestyle gurus, interior decorators, TV chefs. The plump housewife can buy six sessions with a personal trainer, and sign up for a trimester of evening classes in Russian. The shy teacher can find a counsellor who promises lessons in self-assertion, and buy tapes to improve his interpersonal skills. All this sweat and toil leads to a dramatic reinvention - in which the rest of society willingly colludes. We allow the once-plump housewife to pass herself off as a glam, Russophile intellectual, and the once-retiring teacher as a go-getting, trend-setting pedagogue.

Now, honestly: where would you rather live?