Leafing through a French magazine you come across a beautiful blond in
a sumptuous décollété evening dress gliding along next to a tall distinguished
man, and it turns out to be the (extremely powerful) former Minister of
Justice, Elizabeth Guigou, and her husband. On the street, a devastating
blond roars by on a motor cycle with long hair streaming out below her
cap; she's the director of a nuclear power station. In a kiosk there's
a poster of another blond so beautiful she'd make Cleopatra jealous; who
is it but Odile Jacob, founder of a thriving publishing company for scientific
books. And those blocks-long queues of young people lining up to see Le
Goût des Autres and La Bûche, who made the movies? Women wrote
and directed them, Agnès Jaoui, charm itself, and beautiful Danièle Thompson.
How do they do it, French women?
Beautiful, mysterious, competent, admired and envied by women and courted
by men everywhere for their looks, their elegant, subtle sexiness and
style, French women slowly, very slowly insinuated their way into key
positions in all of the male bastions of this most macho-male Latin country,
even, in May 2002, into major political power with the choice of Michèle
Alliot-Marie as Minister of Defense, a first for a woman in France. Women
have done this despite the dice being loaded against them, and without
a feminist movement. "We want to be feminine, not feminist," they will
tell you. "We want to be friends with men. We want tenderness -- and
jobs." Without firing a shot, much less declaring war on men, they managed
to obtain extra government allowances for each child, three months maternity
leave with job security on returning to work, excellent, almost free child
care and medical services, and first-rate education for their children.
Not to mention, despite the traditions of a Roman Catholic country, the
right to abortion, the pill, and the day-after pill for high school girls.
Equal salaries in the workplace? Not quite, not yet, but you can bet it's
And they're still "friends with men."
So, how do they do it? Softly. But it takes training to get your way softly.
Training and patience. About 1,000 years of both.
First of all, to be a French woman you need a French mother and women
role models back to the 5th century: saints and abbesses, warriors and
intellectuals, royal mistresses directing affairs of state, voluptuous
horizontals and splendid actresses.
Secondly, you need French men, and a climate of love.
Thirdly, you need a thousand years of male-female symbiosis. Webster's
definition (1953): "The living together in intimate association or even
close union of two dissimilar organisms. In a broad sense, the term includes
antagonistic or antipathetic symbiosis, in which the association is disadvantageous
or destructive to one of the organisms."
The French writer and Académicien Alain Decaux took 1824 pages in Les
Françaises (1972) to give a vision of a 1000-year symbiosis disastrously
disadvantageous to women and yet, regardless of their startling lack of
legal rights, their influence on French men. After the feudal ages, women
became the property of their fathers and then of their husbands, with
the status of children or the mentally handicapped, and no say about their
own body or dowry, no protection against the violence of their husband
until the 20th century. Adulteresses like Léonie d'Aunet, a passing love
of Victor Hugo, were automatically thrown in prison with thieves and prostitutes,
while adulterous men, needless to say, went happily about their business.
Courtly love and
In a sense, the
elusively superb flair of French women dates to the 12th century, when
feudal baronesses, countesses and duchesses held two trumps: property
and professional rights of their own, and if their lords were away on
the Crusades, real power over their vassals; and the new mode of romantic
love, which had surfaced due to the legends of King Arthur and Tristan
and Isolde, both published on the initiative of that great queen, Eleanor
of Aquitaine. Marriages were arranged; love bloomed outside of marriage,
particularly with the lords away in Jerusalem. Eleanor and her daughter,
Marie of Champagne, played their hand brilliantly for succeeding generations
by inventing l'amour courtois, a leap for Europe and the first
step in a long process of converting coarse feudal French warriors into
elegant courtiers with manners and an interest in the arts.
Steeped in the troubadour love poetry of her ducal grandfather, Marie,
with a chaplain called André, wrote books on the principles of love and
the codes and etiquette to be followed by her vassals. The books were
inspired by Ovid's The Art of Loving except that, as Amy Kelly
points out in her Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, in Ovid,
man is the master, employing his arts to seduce women for his pleasure,
while in Marie's work with André, "woman is the mistress and man her pupil
in homage, her vassal in service." Men who refused to follow the rules
were simply denied the ladies' favors. On their side, women were taught
to be séduisantes, in the French sense of the word -- which is
to please, in their dress and manner; in other words, to be coquettes.
Marie also inaugurated those 12th-century spectaculars, the "courts of
love," in the great hall in Poitiers. Knights came to this "court" --
made up of 60 ladies -- with a "suit" or complaint about their lady's
resistance despite their strict adherence to the love codes. The courts
debated his case, as well as questions still alive today, such as, can
romantic love be sustained in marriage?
Things would never be the same for men again. In the following centuries,
powerless to save their legal rights, women threw themselves into the
lessons of Eleanor and Marie: to please, and to demand male manners, softly.
To please, appearance (paraître) was crucial. By the fourteenth
century, French fashion was magnificent. By the 16th, fashion and perfume,
the handmaidens of coquetterie, were the recognized domains of
the French, thus, as Brillat-Savarin says in the quote at the beginning
of the chapter, bringing the world to France to learn about coquetterie.
Early in the 17th century, aristocratic French women known as the Précieuses
decided to extend their soft insistence to the crude language of the men
around them. Men who wished to be considered distinguished now had to
hark to the rules of elegant French as well as courtship. Richelieu took
over this mission in 1635 by founding the Académie Française. The Précieuses
also hit on a new coat of paint for gallantry. They thought up the carte
du tendre (map of tenderness), which looks a little like a board game
of Go. The suitor's route winds around preliminaires to be submitted to
or overcome by the suitor (the Lake of Challenge, the Hill of Sighs) before
his beloved surrenders.
The language salons of the Précieuses evolved into the literary
and philosophical salons of the 18th century. Marriages were still arranged,
wives were still a man's property, but women had widened their domain
from the senses and manners to the mind, or esprit.
They now reigned over taste. They pushed this writer or that artist to
success, withheld it from another. They affected everything from letters
and art to affairs of state. Madame de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV,
received ambassadors, wrote the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and gave advice
and commissions to artists, architects and artisans. The style we call
Louis XV is the style Pompadour. The paintings of Boucher and Fragonard
are songs to her and to the ladies of the court. The salon of Madame Geoffrin,
the first to attract Diderot, was renowned in Europe and crowded with
foreign notables such as Hume, Walpole and Franklin. Gustave II of Sweden
and Catherine the Great of Russia wrote her letters. When Stanislas Poniatowski
was made King of Poland, he insisted that she visit him in Warsaw, where
he had an apartment prepared for her furnished exactly like her salon
in Paris. On the way there, the Emperor of Austria descended from his
carriage to pay her homage.
The Marquise du Châtelet, Voltaire's only great love, was a scientific
pathfinder. She knew everything that was known of mathematics, including
Newton's differential calculus, could write Latin, and had studied Leibnitz.
She was also known for her high spirits. When she saw Voltaire for the
first time at age 27, already married for seven years to a man she despised,
instead of swooning at the sight of the great man like the other ladies
of her age, she jumped in his lap.
Love, coquetterie was always in play. During the Revolution, women
used these skills to rescue heads from the guillotine. Thérésia Cabarrus,
a beautiful and rich divorcée known as Notre Dame de Thermidor, became
the mistress of one of the bloodiest assassins of the Terror, Jean-Marie
Tallien, to save her own neck and intervene for hundreds of others. After
the anguish of the Revolution came the Directoire and the extravagant
relief and reveling of the classes which could afford it. There were 600
public balls in Paris. Thérésia, now the mistress of the powerful Directoire
member Barras, led the voluptuous dance, changing wigs three times a day,
wearing almost transparent dresses which stopped at the knee, and appearing
barefoot at balls with painted toenails. Other women displayed their nipples
erotically or dressed in trousers.
Adapted from Chapter 13 of Savoir-Flair
by Polly Platt.