La Seduction – how the French play the game of life

Séduire * plaire à quelqu’un et obtenir amour ou faveurs en usant de son charme * conquérir l’admiration, l’estime, la confiance * captiver, charmer *attirer de façon irrésistible en parlant d’une chose

Suggested by a local book club and interested in an outsider’s perception of life in France, I find myself in the company of Elaine Sciolino, Paris bureau chief of the New York Times between the pages of her alluring book.

Inspired by a lecture she gave at the NY public library in 2008 entitled ‘Séduction à la française’ the author explained how seduction was key to understanding France and the French, positing that one of the reasons for President Sarkozy’s low ratings in the popularity polls post-election was because he had not mastered these rules. He may not play by the rules, but he did find his counter balance when he married Carla Bruni, who Scioloni describes as:

a modern-day woman with the manners of an eighteenth-century courtesan, skilled in the art of movement and the rituals of conversation.

Intriguing indeed and what fun the author must have had flirting flitting around the micro empires of Parisian style, beauty, cuisine, politics and culture, meeting presidents, diplomats, artists, writers, chefs, businessmen, merchants, farmers, philosophers, journalists, fashion designers, perfumers and museum curators.

The book describes a world and a manner of being I know little about, despite living within its midst these past six or so years; but Paris, like many large cities is not necessarily typical of the rest and after listening to others discuss this book, opinion is indeed varied, some suggesting ‘la seduction’ old fashioned, a prerogative of certain social classes, political circles or even pure fantasy. I tend to think there are sufficient anecdotes to say oui to all of those suggestions.

What is certain is that cultural perceptions are different even when values may be similar. While a certain look ‘le regard’ from a man is welcomed as a complement in France, it might receive a verbal legal threat in America. In France, there is greater tolerance and less testing the waters of behaviour that in the US might be construed as sexual harassment.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin, Paris, 16ème - Photo Lycée Condorcet

An interesting example of how long things have been so, was observed ( and well portrayed in the excellent HBO series ‘John Adams’) in the conduct and perceptions of Benjamin Franklin (first Ambassador to France) and John Adams (the second American president), Franklin understood it impolite to discuss business at dinner, immersing himself in the peculiarities of French culture while pursuing his goal; Adams however, saw Franklin’s indulgences and game playing as a complete waste of time, his disapproving manner causing the French to frown and exclude him completely. When Franklin died, France mourned him like a hero; people thought so highly of him, some believed he had been a president.

One of the paradoxes is the attitude towards privacy. Behaviours complicit in la seduction are accepted, but it is frowned upon to indulge in more than fanciful rumour; the media keep their distance from any story that verges on incriminating a person for something considered to be private or slanderous. This was highlighted recently when Sarkozy whispered an insult in the ear of President Obama about another Head of State and although the comment was overhead and reported widely by English and American media, it was not reported until a week later by the French press and even then it was kept very low profile. Not one French person I asked knew about the story. The sanctity of the right to privacy is paramount.

The chapters on gastronomy and concocting perfumes I particularly enjoyed, time spent with a connoisseur passionate about their work is pure joy and since mixing the essences of plants and flowers is one of my own passions, I was happily lost in these chapters imagining the sweet mix of aromas and the taste of Guy Savoy’s mother’s home cooking. See him work his magic here and experience his culinary art of seduction.

I recall reading ‘Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be wrong’ by Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, a Canadian attempt to understanding France and the French and their effort to explain the root of the differences. One of the analogies they made that has stayed with me was to suggest that visitors should expect a culture and a people as dissimilar to themselves as they might assume when visiting Japan or China. All are ancient civilisations and have many traits, laws, beliefs, habits, attitudes and ways of doing things that go back generations, centuries.

Our institutions originate in the decadence of ancient Rome. We are an old people. The mistresses of monarchs, from Louis XIV to Napolean III … are part of our history. – Patrick Devedjian, Paris

Rather than debate whether this is an accurate portrayal or not, I see it as another contribution to an attempted unveiling of what lies within an ancient culture and how that influences what we encounter in our modern day interactions and visitations in this intriguing country and among her patriotic people. It remains a slow opening mystery to me, so I just continue to listen, observe, interact, read and learn.

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18 thoughts on “La Seduction – how the French play the game of life

    • I just read today that they are looking at translating this book into French, that may elicit a very interesting dialogue which will highlight just those differences you speak about. Read the book and join the debate.

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  1. Excellent post (as usual), so insightful and interesting. As an American amalgam, that is English and French ancestry, and as a vocal feminist who does wish for some respect of personal space, it does help to understand motivation may not be so much sleezoid as a product of an accepting culture.

    Natalie Clifford Barney, born in the US in 1876, lived in Paris until her death in 1972, had quite a love for the city, and her salons (and exploits) are now legend.

    Keep the posts coming!

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    • Personal space and greetings are an interesting subject in themselves, see Elodie’s comment below. We grow up with certain habits and they become our comfort zones, when we move the differences are highlighted and then we adapt and often see things differently.
      I’m just starting and Edith Wharton book and I believe she too lived in Paris, I do enjoy the writing and exploits of those that were game to try it on.

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  2. A very intriguing premise for a book, and one I dare say you’re better equipped than I am to review, despite my affinity for French culture, from the sound of the words to wine and style, etc. It’s always a pleasure to read the insights you bring to the books you read and write about. Thank you, too, for your thoughtful comments on my recent posts.

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    • I think anyone reading this book would bring an interesting persective, because it questions our norm and provokes a response, not always a comfortable one. I would definitely be interested in the view of a native New Yorker with an affinity for French culture. I hope you dare to indulge.

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  3. Thanks for giving us such thorough insight. From my visits over there I know that something is different. I think that they just love anything sensuous – food, perfume, fabrics, etc.

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    • Absolutely Julie, not just love it but prioritise it, I work with people whose work place is locked between 12 and 2pm – you WILL go out and have a leisurely, enjoyable lunch (with a small glass of wine), walk the dog and let your food digest and appreciate how different the morning is from the afternoon.

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  4. Very interesting Claire. I may have to pick that book up at some point. For me it´s quite revealing to read how others perceive the French culture…As you say it can be so different and so similar depending on where you are. The funny thing you mentioned is the “regard”. For me it is the “hug” vs the “kiss on the cheek”: arriving in the US for the first time more than 10 years ago now, my host family hugged me and I felt my personal sphere invaded a bit (now I´m used to it). On the other hand, they saw me kissing on the cheek a guy and they thought it was so “personal”, so “intimate”. I found it quite interesting to see how one gesture can be interpreted as “intimate” while for me it is not at all while a hug felt much more physical…

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    • That’s interesting what you say about the hug, I’ve become used to the bises (kiss) and had the experience of returning to NZ last summer and for the first time ever feeling awkward with the hug, it no longer felt natural, yet the action so familiar.

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  5. French culture is like the woman I don’t talk to because I know I would fall in love with her and she would eventually break my heart. C’est la vie.

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  6. This looks like a wonderful book. Of course, the title is catchy, but your review makes it all the more enticing. I am not Frenchwoman material (too Latin) but I am always keen to adopt and add to my womanly bags of tricks. I’ve only been to France once, and it wasn’t a great trip, which I confess tarnished my view.. Having said that. my sister and I want to visit this spring.

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    • The discussions that have followed are just as interesting, moments of enlightenment follow which for the non-french (like me) can take years.

      I definitely recommend you read at least one volume on the cultural differences, it may make the trip more fun to understand the meaning for example behind the non-smiling waiter (it’s not because he’s having a bad day!) A reader just recommended Lucy Wadham’s ‘Secret Life of France’ to me which sounds great and is apparently very funny.

      Let me know if you come to the south of france – only a 3 hour train ride from Paris!

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  7. Thank you for this review, Claire, and your other suggested reads that examine various aspects of French culture. I will read them. I’m writing the second half of my next novel and the setting is the south of France. I made copious notes last summer during our 4 months there but feel I still need to learn more. Some of the differences are subtle indeed i.e the discussion above re bises and hugs. Fascinating! One very simple difference that we have always felt created a more polite culture in France is the simple custom of shopkeepers using madam and monsieur or monsieur/dames in every salutation. Every customer’s presence is noted with respect.

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    • Thanks for your comment Patricia and all the best with your novel, it’s good to keep up with the reading about France to continue to absorb the influence and learn more of its subtleties.
      I recall an elderly lady recounting to me how annoying it was when people answered the telephone and merely said ‘Bonjour’, she told me she replied ‘Bonjour Madame’ emphasising the Madame. I just nodded thinking, there’s another one, the subtle rules of social etiquette.

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  8. This sounds like a book I would enjoy. I’ve read similar titles “French Women Don’t sleep Alone,” “French Women Don’g Get Fat,” “All You Need to be Impossibly French” and “A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.” Some of these were better than others, but I think I will definitely pick up La Seduction.

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    • I know what you mean, there are many titles out there, some better than others. I liked this one though, you can’t take it too literally and the meaning of the word is different, but it provides an interesting insight and shows their more passionate side about many things, which is a bit of an inside look that many visitors are not witness to.

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