Vive la dif­fer­ence

French women could do with a revo­lu­tion to free them form the tyranny of stereo­typ­ing, Authon and jour­nal­ist Marie-Mor­gane Le Moel is happy to lead the way.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - AUTHORS - BY SU­SAN JOHN­SON

rench women are all lusty sex kit­tens, with lacy knick­ers and cham­pagne in the fridge in case a man drops in. They cook like a dream, dress in fab­u­lous designer clothes and their chil­dren are an­gels. They also re­gain their per­fect fig­ures on the way out of the de­liv­ery room.

Yeah, right. More likely your typ­i­cal French woman is get­ting up to catch an early train to a bor­ing job, wear­ing a cheap leop­ard-print miniskirt, with un­flat­ter­ing pur­ple streaks in her hair and way too much lip­stick.

In the same way that New York is not Amer­ica, Paris is not France (and even Paris is not “Paris” at, say, the gi­ant Tati dis­count depart­ment store in the African part of the 18th ar­rondisse­ment). But or­di­nary Paris doesn’t sell as many luxury hand­bags as the cliches. Where would the world be with­out its myths? Don’t we need the dream of Paris, our ro­man­tic idea of an en­chanted city where beau­ti­ful women live, all of them wear­ing el­e­gant clothes? Surely we long to be­lieve in cul­tural stereo­types, like the 19th cen­tury French writer Arséne Hous­saye, who wrote that “the Parisian woman isn’t in fash­ion, she is fash­ion”.

Try telling that to the av­er­age French woman labour­ing un­der the weight of im­pos­si­ble il­lu­sions. Paris-based au­thor and jour­nal­ist Marie-Mor­gane Le Moël, 36, is such a one, al­ter­nately be­mused, be­wil­dered and ir­ri­tated by the cliches defin­ing the woman she is sup­posed to be. In her new book, The Truth About French Women, Le Moël says she is yet to find the per­fect woman por­trayed in the hun­dreds of books writ­ten about her com­pa­tri­otes, which she says has be­come “a pub­lish­ing mar­ket in it­self”. French Women Don’t Get Fat, French Women Don’t Sleep Alone and French Women Don’t Get Facelifts are just some of the ti­tles pub­lished in the past few years – some of which have be­come in­ter­na­tional bestsellers – and that Le Moël says can be summed up by an acro­nym she made up: SISTFGYLPK (Slim In­tel­lec­tual Sluts with a Taste for Foie Gras, Younger Lovers and Per­fect Kids).

The cliches might be taken as one big laugh – and to some, might even seem flat­ter­ing – ex­cept if the joke’s on you. “French women are worth more than mere cliches,” Le Moël says. “They’ve done so much more than sim­ply be el­e­gant.”

No won­der she gets ir­ri­tated: when Le Moël and her Aus­tralian hus­band – jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian Paul Ham, 55 – lived in Australia for sev­eral years (they re­turned to Paris in 2012), she noted how Aus­tralians had a car­toon­ish con­cept of what a French woman was, defin­ing her in a limited, strait­jack­eted sort of way. When she and Ham were experiencing mar­i­tal dif­fi­cul­ties, for ex­am­ple, their Syd­ney doc­tor re­ferred them to a ther­a­pist with a let­ter that read: “Please see X, who is hav­ing some dif­fi­cul­ties with his wife. She’s French.” LE MOËL GREW UP WITH AN EL­DER SIS­TER, Anne, and a twin brother, Pierre, in Lure in the Franche-Comté re­gion of north-eastern France. Her late fa­ther, Gérard, was a jour­nal­ist for L’Est Répub­li­cain, the largest re­gional news­pa­per in eastern France. Her mother, Madeleine, was an English teacher and both her grand­moth­ers worked in var­i­ous jobs out­side the home.

And here we come to per­haps the num­ber one truth – and dif­fer­ence – be­tween French women and other women: French women have long mixed moth­er­hood and work, and there is rarely any de­bate about it. They have 16 weeks’ paid ma­ter­nity leave, ac­cess to a state-aided “ma­ter­nal as­sis­tant” and free kinder­gartens from three years of age, which 100 per cent of French chil­dren at­tend.

In a phone in­ter­view with Qweek­end from her apart­ment in Paris, Le Moël (who has an adult step­son living in Australia) says her ex­pe­ri­ence of Aus­tralian at­ti­tudes to work­ing moth­ers was one of the jump­ing-off points for her book. She writes of meet­ing a stay-at-home mother at a party in Syd­ney who smugly im­plied that Le Moël’s sis­ter, who is a lawyer, must be a bad mother if she could con­tinue work­ing in a de­mand­ing job while rais­ing two chil­dren. Her ar­gu­ment with that sort of opin­ion was just one of the many ex­pe­ri­ences that caused Le Moël to start look­ing at the re­al­i­ties of French women’s lives. Her project even­tu­ally be­came a

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