Review: Non-Fiction: LA Seduction by Elaine Sciolino
Beautiful books, €8.99
Published 30/07/2011 | 05:00
During the fallout from l'affaire DSK, a high-profile French sociologist wrote a piece in Le Monde teasing out what it might mean for French women that a man "everyone knew" was a serial seducer, at best, had been a shoo-in for president.
It was, in many ways, what you might expect from France's most serious, self-regarding paper: judicious and reserved.
But then, in the same sober piece, she mentioned the "pleasures of seduction" and "the delicious surprises of stolen kisses" as if they were among the Rights of Man -- or woman anyway.
This kind of deep seriousness about the trivial, this elevation of flirtation to a civic duty, is baffling and amusing for foreigners, but for New York Times journalist Elaine Sciolino it is the key to understanding the French, as she explains in La Seduction, her take on how the French play the game of life.
Sciolino, from Buffalo, New York, has been living in France on and off since the 1970s. She's been a Paris correspondent for the New York Times for the past nine years, so her outsider's view of the French is an informed one.
It's a grey, unseasonal morning when we meet at her handsome apartment in the 9th arrondissement.
When she hears that I've skipped breakfast, we head for the kitchen.
"Seduction flows through French life," begins Sciolino once coffee has been served. "In private life . . . in the obvious subjects like gastronomy and perfume, but it is also in commerce, politics and foreign policy."
While English-speakers give the word "seduction" a sexual connotation, the French apply it far more widely. Sciolino cites some recent headlines such as "Pope seduces the Palestinians" and "Operation Seduction" about the war in Afghanistan.
She makes a convincing historical case for why France takes the business of seduction so seriously.
First, they were once a global power, and second, France has always been idealised by foreigners. French ideals inspired US independence -- in aristocratic Russia, courtly England and for the elites of pre-revolutionary Iran, French was the language.
Nobody has had more influence on how the world eats and drinks.
Now, shorn of power, the French are left only with their seductive style. That has become their substance. It's all that stops the place being a second-rate Germany.
"America is results driven," says Sciolino as I linger in what I hope is a Gallic way over the brioche and jam.
"It's about the bottom line, the end result -- not having fun along the way. For me living in France, it was a process of learning how to work in a different register."
She contrasts shopping for groceries in America (a one-stop shop, done in a hurry) to Paris -- the small shops, the gradual wooing of the local butcher and baker, the alien concept of the hard sell. She describes her last trip to the fishmonger who wasn't happy just to recommend some shrimp, but told Sciolino how to cut them and sautee them with shallots and white wine.
Whenever exasperation strikes in the face of the French service industry, Sciolino counsels that we think of how we ourselves are in seduction mode -- giving and holding back, coy and revealing, verbally jousting, meeting halfway in a shared experience.
And unlike the rest of us, the French like to behave like this at any given opportunity. A waiter will recoil if he feels rebuffed, charm if he feels you play along. And it's not okay not to be in the mood. "Gimme a drink," won't cut it.
It's maddening, perhaps. But, asks Sciolino, "Isn't this what attracts us, with our deadline-driven cultures, to France? It is a way of living the fantasy of this other kind of life." Of course, Sciolino admits there's a dark side to this code of seduction.
When it is "sophisticated" to turn a blind eye to infidelity, when it is "the done thing" for women to stand by their men, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn's wife, Anne Sinclair, just months ago said she was "quite proud" of her husband's reputation, it's tempting to see the courtly gentillesse as a con job to allow men get away with being cads.
But the country is at a turning point, says Sciolino, and women are asking what is in it for them, to have this code of flirtation in all aspects of life.
Nonetheless, she has "huge arguments with French friends about flirtatiousness in the work place.
"I would much rather have the American system, where you have strict rules and women are protected."
Contrast this with Sciolino's own experience interviewing Jacques Chirac, who, after shaking the hand of her editor, kissed hers. "It wasn't aggressive, it wasn't sexual, but it made clear, I'm the man and you're the woman. I didn't come in as an equal.
"Yet I know women who would be insulted without the kisses on both cheeks, and the compliments."
Sciolino is perhaps not quite convinced, but is ready to see that the element of partage, of sharing, that is the kernel of French seduction, does create its own kind of social cohesion.
And besides, as Sciolino notes in her book, when a former president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, can talk about his election strategy as seducing 17 million women -- and not become a laughing stock -- it's a sign of the secure place flirtation has in the culture of that strange yet familiar country, la France.