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.
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