Elaine Sciolino’s new book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, adds one more tome to a mounting pile purporting to explain what makes the French different from mere mortals. But Sciolino, a longtime New York Times Paris bureau correspondent, offers something other than the usual how-French-women-stay-slim-while-artfully-tying-a-Hermès-scarf approach. Her book is a delectable and at times thought-provoking essay.
“For the French,” she writes, “life is rarely about simply reaching the goal. It is also about the leisurely art of pursuing it and persuading others to join in.”
Sciolino makes an important clarification right up front: the word “seduction” does not necessarily have anything to do with sex. In French, “séduire” means “to charm” or “to win over.” She then illustrates how seduction permeates every aspect of French life, dissecting everything from politics to perfume and conversation under the seduction microscope, using amusing, well-chosen anecdotes.
She explains that seduction, “a game associated with the ideas of ‘lightness,’ ‘pleasure’ and ‘banter’,” really took off in the court of Louis XIV, where clever conversation didn’t need a purpose, but had to be witty. “Puns should be avoided,” would-be courtiers learned. “It becomes a verbal orgasm that brings the conversation to an end.”
This template is more or less adhered to in contemporary politics. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his former Finance Minster Christine Lagarde were mocked when they talked about “getting down to work.” “[One reason] Lagarde’s speech was so savagely criticized is that it was brutally direct…. Had it been sweetened with understatement, or irony, it might have gone down easier. Simply put, it lacked seduction.”
But why do the French have to play this game? Because life is boring without it, you puritanical Anglos! Refreshingly, Sciolino doesn’t try to cultivate her “inner Frenchwoman,” but rather turns her book into a kind of compare-and-contrast exercise, playing the clueless American throughout (although as a veteran New York Times correspondent, she is anything but).
This is in part for comic effect. She meets top model Inès de la Fressange, for example, who tells her she can’t possibly approach so “vast and serious” a subject without taking a French lover. Sciolino later strategizes about the appropriate choice over breakfast with her husband, who says “I somehow don’t think you’re supposed to be telling me about this.”
She relates the amusing story of a Frenchwoman working in the United States who was obliged to take a “sexual harassment awareness test” and failed every question.
And she contrasts it with an interview with a female member of the Conseil d’Etat, the highest administration and public law court in France. Sciolino asks her if, conforming to the cliché about Frenchwomen, she gets dressed up to run out and buy a baguette. “Of course,” the woman replies. “Because there is the odd chance that the window cleaner might whistle… and my day will be sunnier!”
Sciolino sometimes falls too easily into stereotypes, however. In insisting on the French love of process vs. the English-speaking world’s focus on the end result, for example, she forgets that the French think of themselves as the practical people who invented the sugar cube, high-speed trains and the Minitel, the precursor to the Internet. And, of course, Frenchmen have no monopoly on extramarital love affairs: for every randy French Master of the Universe, we could find an English-speaking counterpart. And let’s not forget that Charles de Gaulle was monogamous.
And she belabors her point in the cliché-driven chapters examining how seduction plays into the French love of perfume, food and wine.
By a curious twist, the “affaire DSK” broke as this book was being released, making it impossible to read it without considering the scandale that brought down Le Grand Séducteur, as the former International Monetary Fund chief and once-upon-a-time likely next French president Dominique Strauss-Kahn is known in France. (When I received my review copy, I immediately checked the index to see how much space was devoted to him: five pages and a photo).
Yes, most French people can separate the criminal behavior that DSK is accused of from “normal” seduction. Nonetheless, the scandal has set the country soul-searching about whether its relaxed attitude to flirtatiousness really is healthier than the way of the “uptight Anglo-Saxons.”
Sciolino does point out what some of these soul searchers do not: Many Frenchwomen willingly play the game, appreciating the pleasures of consensual seduction even as they demand equality. But she does not spend much time examining the long-taboo topic of sexual harassment on the job and whether these sexual codes pave the way for it.
Has the DSK affair really sparked a turning point in French mores? Is it game over for the national game of seduction? If you’re interested in that conversation, Sciolino’s book is a good one to have on hand. And for just plain Francophiles, it’s certainly better reading than those books on why the French don’t get fat.