What French Women Know About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of Heart and Mind

What French Women Know About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of Heart and Mind

The first thing I appreciated about Debra Ollivier’s book on French women was the promising title: What French Women Know About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of Heart and Mind. If there’s one thing we Americans and other non-French females are dying to know it’s exactly that: What do they know that we don’t? One major difference, Ollivier notes from the get-go, is that “… the French generally understand how to make love not war, while we’re still stuck with border skirmishes in an ongoing battle of the sexes.”

The second thing I appreciated—more than I can say—was that Ollivier, an American married to a Frenchman, steers away from the stereotype of the slim, chic, stylish French woman we foreigners usually imagine. Early on, she explains that this creature of perfection exists mainly in the gilded Paris neighborhoods most tourists know. If visitors were to travel a bit farther away from the Boulevard Saint Germain—for example, to the melting pot 19th arrondissement where Ollivier lived—they’d get a different picture, she says. “For every Parisienne who looks like she stepped out of Elle magazine, clicking her way down the rue de Grenelle in a miniskirt the size of a dinner napkin, with the latest Michel Houellebecq novel tucked in her purse, there is another French woman who lives in Saint-Bonnet-le-Château, buys floral-print dresses from the La Redoute catalog, plays pétanque on weekends after singing in the church choir—and does get fat.” It’s that sentence that made me read the book. Although I know there are as many types of French women as French grape varieties, I was curious to see what the sexy sophisticated Parisian has in common with her less urbane sisters. What indeed is it that they all know about heart and mind and love and sex?

Ollivier had been intrigued by French women ever since meeting her first specimen when an adolescent in California. In laid-back LA, she writes, this alien from another planet “wore scarves in the sun,” went to the supermarket in “cruel-looking” high heels, and examined the produce “as if she might perform angioplastic heart surgery on a tomato”. It was the beginning of a lifelong fascination that continued when she was a student in Paris, living in the posh 16th arrondissement, and when she later returned to live in a multiethnic working-class neighborhood with the French husband she had met in the States. (“I immediately knew he was French because he was eating a hamburger with a fork.”)

Living in different areas of Paris allowed Ollivier to observe all sorts of French women, and she finds that they do indeed have common ground in the way they think, which she explains in seven chapters ranging from “Men” and “Mystery” to “Body” and “Art de Vivre”.

Although all men-women relationships in France aren’t perfect, of course, the two sexes sure seem to have a lot of fun. For starters, writes Ollivier, French men and women actually want to be together to spar, debate, dine and flirt. Yes, flirt. Flirtation “…is a civic duty. It is the French drug of choice. It is the lifeblood that beats at the core of French society. Young women flirt. Older women flirt. Even feminists flirt.” As for the men, at French dinner parties, husbands are separated from wives on purpose—and if, as a result, the husband sees his wife flirting just a little with another man, he’ll be pleased, not distressed. “Because of the gender friskiness and its deep historical roots, French women not only enjoy flirt

ation, they expect it,” writes Ollivier. And does flirtation automatically mean sex après? Ollivier dryly quotes the co-author of a comparative Franco-American sex study: “The French do not consider flirtation and seduction as a direct sexual approach, and flirtation does not necessarily lead to intercourse.”

And here’s one thing that raging feminists will probably hate: when a man is behaving like a little boy, or being unreasonable or stupid, French women prefer to “finesse” it rather than fight it. It may sound rather subservient, but in the end it’s a clever decision. French women know that it’s better to try to work with a situation than change it, especially when it comes to men, because men are never going to change. Voilà!

When it comes to love, writes Ollivier, the French woman thinks in bewitching tones of gray. For example, when American girls pick the petals of flowers, they say “he loves me, he loves me not”. French girls say “he loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all”. American women want to know “where they stand”; the French woman is comfortable with ambiguity. Part of the mystery of French women comes from their “enormous sense of personal boundaries”—a French woman won’t tell you about her life or her husband, or even where she bought her skirt on sale. That’s why many foreigners find French women cold or hard to figure out. “They favor the implicit over the explicit; the subtext over the context; discretion over indiscretion; and the hidden is often much more enticing than the obvious. In other words,” Ollivier sums it up, “they’re exactly the opposite of Americans.”

Ollivier’s book is such a banquet of pleasure that it’s impossible to enumerate all the tasty dishes. Some old-fashioned feminists may hate the book and think French women are truly decadent—but that would be because they didn’t get it, and what a pity. For the rest of us, What French Women Know is a valuable explanation of what makes men-women relationships in France so pleasurable, and why it is that for a woman, even—maybe especially—for a woman who’s not French, France is such a wonderful place to be. Merci, Madame Ollivier.

What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind, by Debra Ollivier. Putnam, 2009. $24.95

Harriet Welty Rochefort is the author of French Fried and French Toast, which will be published in paperback by St. Martin

’s Press this month. Visit our bookstore under Life & Style to find Harriet’s books.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of France Today

Share to:  Facebook  Twitter   LinkedIn   Email

Previous Article Peaches Royale
Next Article Le Comptoir du Petit Marguery

Related Articles

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *