La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life
- Elaine Sciolino
- Times Books/Henry Holt
- 352 pp.
- July 8, 2011
The hidden truth about the French way of life — its rules, its pleasures, its secrets.
Reviewed by Pierre Horn
To help us appreciate French culture, Elaine Sciolino, the Paris correspondent for the New York Times, has written an informative and entertaining study of la séduction. The connotations are not necessarily or solely sexual and imply more charm and influence than does the word’s sinful etymology. In fact, the media frequently use it and its derivatives to describe heads of state: Francois Mitterrand was seductive, as is Barack Obama, whereas Nicolas Sarkozy is not. For the author, “seduction is an unofficial ideology, a guiding principle codified not in documents but in everyday assumptions and patterns of behavior so well established and habitual that they are automatic.”
Sciolino’s first encounter with French-style seduction occurred when she was introduced in 2002 to then President Jacques Chirac, who kissed her hand (although she later found out that he did not perform the baise-main according to social etiquette). When she then read a book about beautiful women of Paris, according to neighborhoods and regardless of age, she wanted to both define and explain what this strategy entailed and meant to the French. Seduction is indeed everywhere, from business to politics to foreign policy.
According to the author, France as a county may be in decline, experiencing a malaise in cultural works, whether books, movies or art, and with the rapid disappearance of family farms, a particularly disturbing malaise in rural areas and small towns as well. Even the French language, which was the medium of diplomacy par excellence for more than 200 years, has been replaced by English in the 20th century.
Despite their loss of stature, however, the French still insist on pleasure and good living, especially when paid for by the State. (Witness the unruly demonstrations throughout the country when it wanted to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.)
Although seduction applies mostly to women, for both sexes the chase is often more interesting than sexual success. It includes the look (without winks) and the backward look; flattery, as long as it is true; intellectual discussion of ideas, which the author calls “foreplay” (money and money-making are taboo topics); the kiss (first on both cheeks, next in the French and the American manner); and then the deed.
Having created a “culture of love” in the Middle Ages, the French emphasize romance and tolerate adulterous affairs, including those of presidents, ministers and politicians. This explains why they never understood American feminism and political correctness, but above all the uproar about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. To underscore that point, and with her tongue in cheek, Sciolino lists the 17 rules of the “honor code of the unfaithful but loyal husband.” One such example is: “Never fall in love. Know how to keep your hormones if not your heart under control. Affairs don’t count. With them, you relax. You don’t fall in love.”
Understandably, French advertising uses sex (but not total nudity) to sell. Lingerie (a French word) and the bikini (a French creation) are essential elements of seduction, as are other clothes and how to wear them. Because all senses are to be seduced, perfumes also contribute to seduction and intimacy, since they convey unconscious messages and leave memories à la Proust. Makeup acts as a stimulating accomplice; thus, rules about its application exist and must be followed. Food and wine, too, are used to seduce through gustatory pleasure.
Because France the country is viewed as a woman, exemplified by the symbol of Marianne (the feminine equivalent of Uncle Sam) and, to a lesser extent, by Joan of Arc, everything must be maintained in its beauty and elegance the better to seduce — the countryside in all its rich variety, the Eiffel Tower as icon of Paris, the Palace of Versailles, the very epitome of France as a great nation.
La Seduction is both a lively and enjoyable essay, written with humor, sometimes at the author’s own expense, as a memoir in which she, her husband and their two daughters often appear as themselves, and a culture book that not only captures the essence of the French character in all its idiosyncrasies but also describes the quirky differences between American and French mores. This is accomplished though the use of many amusing anecdotes, examples from literature and films, and interviews and conversations with people from all walks of life.
Elaine Sciolino is obviously charmed by the French way of life, yet is not totally seduced by French behavior, words or intellectual parrying. But ultimately, as she herself realizes, while no foreigner can truly become French, around the corner the possibility of another seduction exists.
Pierre Horn is professor emeritus of French at Wright State University, where he was also Brage Golding Distinguished Professor of Research.