Monday 10 December 2018

What they'll never tell you about French women

The Sorbonne is offering summer courses on the virtues of being French. But there are things they won't tell you, writes Celia Walden, who was born in France

Brigitte Bardot
Brigitte Bardot
'Carla Bruni insists she "eats a plate of pasta a day", do bear in mind that it is most likely to be premium-quality codswallop'

Celia Walden

Not content with simply being superior to every other nation, France selflessly ditched its nombrilisme at the start of this century in order to relaunch itself as a self-help guru to the rest of the pitifully bungling world. You can only sit there so long quietly watching other people mess up before it starts to grate.

And whether it's dressing stylishly, eating healthily, rearing the perfect child or maintaining marital harmony, those Gauls really do like us to think they have it all taped. Which is why Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat (published in 2004) not only sold by the cartload abroad, but spawned dozens of like-minded titles, designed not so much to improve foreigners' quality of life as impress upon them quite how uniquely civilised the French are.

It's also, one presumes, why Paris's Sorbonne University has just announced that it will be offering foreigners summer courses on the virtues of being French - including a course "dissecting the role of women in French history, literature and the arts", which will cover everything from "the contemporary French female body" to "ageing gracefully" and "female diplomacy".

However, as someone who was born and raised in France and has herself devoted a great deal of time and energy to dissecting the French female, I feel duty bound to share some nuggets that may not make it on to the Sorbonne's curriculum.

French women don't do sisterliness

That "special place in hell for women who don't help other women" that Madeleine Albright spoke of? It has been exclusively cordoned off for French women, who, long ago, realised that sharing their diet and style tips or handing over the number of their (excellent) dermatologist - even to their best friends - is a fool's game known as "cosmetic kamikaze" among the French non-sisterhood. It's every woman for herself in this brittle, competitive land.

French Women don't get fat...

Because they drink a lot of black coffee and smoke. When offered up to publishers, however, this diet-book synopsis met with little success. Largely because it was an honest assessment of the French woman's weight management scheme - and to share it with the rest of the world's pleasingly discipline-free female fellowship would be to do half the country out of its USP.

Guiliano and her cohorts may advocate "three-course dinners" and "eating for pleasure", but I have yet to meet a French woman who does either. So when (French-Italian) Carla Bruni insists she "eats a plate of pasta a day", do bear in mind that it is most likely to be premium-quality codswallop.

French women love a pharmacy

Alongside the medical paraphernalia of every small-time hypochondriac (at any given time, she will have paracetamol, an antihistamine, rubbing alcohol, throat pastilles and cystitis antibiotics somewhere in her Jerome Dreyfuss handbag), the French woman relies on a plethora of pills to cure every imaginary ailment from "heavy legs" and "stomach bloat" to "orange peel thighs" - all of which are basically no more than gut flora.

Without the support of the country's neuroses-fuelling large pharmaceutical companies, they would cease to function entirely.

They also love matching underwear

Basically, French women are never sartorially off-duty. "What does she think she's wearing?" I once overheard two mature Parisian women sniff when I stopped off at Monoprix on my way home in my workout gear. "I'm on my way to the gym" is neither an excuse nor the badge of honour it has become in sweat-friendly societies.

And if you will persist in whittling away that pain au chocolat on your hamster wheel, at least have the good grace to parade around the changing rooms in matching Princess Tam Tam lingerie afterwards.

French women terrify French men

To which I can only doff my Maison Michel fedora. Never mind rearing the perfect child, French women have perfected the art of rearing the perfect boyfriend/husband.

When one Parisian girlfriend caught her husband answering a work text at the dinner table, she threw his iPhone out of their fourth-floor apartment window on to the Boulevard Saint Michel. Far from scaring men off with their carefully honed volatility, French women only succeed in reeling them in closer.

French women don't whinge about glass ceilings

Mostly because they're too busy smashing through them. Thanks to the absence of single-sex schools, French women have learned to work alongside men from a young age. They didn't need IMF chief Christine Lagarde to tell them: "Grit your teeth and smile. In the face of adversity, go. They don't deserve you."

That much has always been self-evident.

Lastly, French women don't take advice

Adapting to anyone else's notion of what you should be is an aberration. Self-help books and lifestyle courses are left to the feeble foreigners.


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