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18 October 1999

Why French women are different

Margaret St John finds paradoxes in a country that chooses a pin-up as its national symbol

By Margaret St John

A beauty contest to choose the official symbol of the nation? It could happen only in France, a country where every sports show has a resident dolly bird or a studio audience composed mostly of pretty girls.

It was not declared to be a beauty contest. The 6,000 French mayors were supposed to select a new model for the official bust of Marianne – the symbol of the republic – from a panel of six which allegedly represented modern, intelligent, working French womanhood. The choice, by the overwhelmingly male electorate, just happened to fall on the prettiest, most empty-headed candidate on offer, the model and actress Laetitia Casta.

There was no public outcry, with the exception of one female mayor, who received far more publicity in the American press than she did in the French. In Britain or the US, women would have been vocally furious. In France, they shrugged their shoulders or discussed which hair-style would suit Laetitia/Marianne best.

I have been living in France for almost three years. Of the many paradoxes that France cultivates, this is the one that fascinates and baffles me the most. There is much talk of French “exceptions”, but the greatest French exception of all, it seems to me, is the state of play in the battle of the sexes. Which battle? At the street or office level, it has yet to begin.

French women define themselves in relation to men. They defer to men; they dress for men; they flirt shamelessly with men; they trip up or denigrate other women to impress men. As a woman journalist told me soon after I arrived in Paris: “Sisterhood has not yet arrived in France.”

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Almost all the English-speaking women I know in Paris regard French women as light years behind in terms of the usual signs of gender assertiveness and independence. And yet – here is the paradox – those same English-speaking women, myself included, find French women formidable, terrifying and admirable in many ways.

I asked a fellow Irishwoman, who has worked successfully alongside career women in a large French company for ten years, to sum them up. She hardly paused for breath: “Self-obsessed and competitive,” she said. “Bitchy. Always put themselves first. Ruthless in pursuit of a man. Once they have selected one, incredibly loyal and self-effacing. They put up with anything from men. They dress beautifully but they are never fashion victims. When dressing, they have a devastating ability to make accessories count. They don’t spend much on make-up but they will spend vast amounts on skin-care and then ruin it all by smoking 20 a day.”

To this, I would add, French middle-class and career women sip and never drink. I have never seen a French woman drunk. They have an infuriating ability to produce delicious food but they never visibly eat anything. I don’t know a single Parisian bourgeois or trendy woman who is overweight. And yet they never seem to do any exercise. If they have to travel 100 metres, they will move the Renault Twingo from one illegal parking space to another.

Ultimately, men rule. A French woman friend was shocked – and then giggled at me as if I was a gauche child – when I told her that I was having dinner with a homosexual, male friend. My faux pas, it turned out, was not to be seen in public with a homosexual; but with another man. Her trendy, friendly, 40-something husband would have been outraged. He was allowed to have an independent social life, but not her.

How to explain this mixture of deference and brazen self-assurance? First of all, it has to be said, French men and women are more at ease with sex, and therefore with one another, than Anglo-Saxon men and women. French women sincerely appear to like men. Beneath that scowl or impassive face, reserved for all strangers, most seem content to revolve their lives around men, to appear to play second fiddle but to rule the home, to remain exquisitely feminine. They are, as far as I can see, happy.

They have inevitably paid a price. The French parliament still has fewer women members than almost any other in the developed world. A recent government survey found that French women executives are paid 20 per cent less, on average, than men and rarely reach the uppermost slopes of the corporate mountain. Those women who do break through into powerful public positions face outright sexist abuse. On a visit to an agricultural show this year, Dominique Voynet, the environment minister and Green leader, was faced with a leering crowd of farmers who shouted that they wanted to see her in her knickers. A group of female intellectuals and politicians, calling themselves the “Chiennes de Garde” (literally guard-bitches) has been formed to campaign against such archaic nonsense.

There are signs that the younger generation – influenced by travel, the Internet and movies – takes a more Anglo-Saxon view of women’s place in the world. The protests by lycee students, this year and last, were led almost exclusively by girls.

Do I like French women? Yes. They are blunt and bitchy. (“That colour is wrong for you.” “Isn’t it time you got a new jacket?”) But as an Irishwoman who had to put up with American and British women in Washington and London, I find French women ultimately refreshing. In London, confronted with women awkwardly moving their weight from one foot to another, I could never decode the complexities of English reserve/shyness/snootiness/rudeness. If French women smile, they are open to conversation. If they scowl, they should be left alone. In France, I can read the body language. I always know where I stand, even if it is nowhere.