June 01, 2011

Elaine Sciolino

Flirting with the French
Interview by
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What do you think of when you hear the word "seduction"? Whatever it is, get ready to expand that definition after reading La Seduction, an insightful and timely exploration of French culture through its most enduring success strategy. New York Times Paris correspondant Elaine Sciolino has been living in France for nearly 10 years. She took time to answer a few of our questions about the way the concept of seduction informs just about every area of French life.

Your book is not the first to explore or explain French culture. How do you feel it fits alongside books like French Women Don't Get Fat and Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong
Don’t Get Fat is an impressionistic, light—and delightful—guide by a Frenchwoman to help other women become beautiful, thin and balanced in the French way. Sixty Million is a very solid, durable and readable primer on France and French life.

La Seduction is an examination of the importance of seduction in all aspects of French life. The tools of the seducer—anticipation, promise, allure—are powerful engines in French history and politics, culture and style, food and foreign policy, literature and manners. The book draws on years of reporting on and living in France. It includes interviews with Presidents and politicians; business executives and bureaucrats; writers, actors, students, professors, merchants, farmers, etc. My conclusion is that seduction is more than a game; it is an essential strategy for France’s survival as a country of influence.

One thing that struck me about the book is its even-handedness. What do you think America could learn from France's "seduction" strategy? what do you think that France could learn from America?
We Americans can learn to embrace what the French call plaisir—the art of creating and relishing pleasure of all kinds. The French are proud masters of it, for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and leisure that America’s hardworking, supercapitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow. 

The French can learn American efficiency that leads to getting results. They can learn to acknowledge and embrace ethnic, religious and racial diversity.

"It is almost a civic duty to seduce." 

What is the biggest difference between the French and American worldviews?
The United States tends to resort to hard power, the use of force to resolve disputes—whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. The French were pioneers of soft power, the art of influencing others at the negotiating table and on the ground through attraction (translated into French as séduction). 

France’s capability to use force to subdue others disappeared long ago. It has had to rely more on powers of persuasion, learning how and when to woo the wider world. France is too weak an economic and military power to counterbalance the United States but too strong and too strong-willed to take orders from it. In a permanent wound to its pride, it has lost one of its most powerful weapons—the supremacy of the French language, which used to be the language of diplomacy and educated elites around the world. English is now the language of international business, the Internet and even diplomacy.

In recent months, however, the United States and France seem to have switched roles. Take Libya, for example. France took the lead in using military force to try to stop Colonel Kaddafi’s brutality against his citizens; it pushed through a strong resolution in the Security Council. The United States lagged behind.   

You write, "I'm convinced that American-style feminism has prevented me from easily absorbing" the reality of French culture. How would you describe French feminism? Do you think most Frenchwomen would call themselves feminists?
France is having its Anita Hill moment. When Anita Hill testified before a Senate committee in 1991 that her former boss Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, he denied everything and was elevated to the Supreme Court. But the hearings were a turning point. Women suddenly said that the "Mad Men" style of behavior they had put up with for so long at work—the leering, the inappropriate touching, the sexual banter—was not acceptable. Legislatures expanded laws about sexual harassment, and businesses began enforcing strict codes of conduct covering sexual relations in the workplace.

France, where powerful men have traditionally treated sex as a right and used it as a weapon, is now embroiled in its own battle of the sexes, involving a powerful man who could have been President and a single mother who works as a hotel maid. Dominique Strauss-Kahn has denied the charges against him. But suddenly, some French women have begun to speak out about an atmosphere that condones sexual behavior that crosses the line and may even be criminal. Women in politics have been particularly vocal in deploring a culture that tends to treat women as objects. 

But the conversation will be long and torturous. The French tend to blur the line between what is acceptable—and even desirable—in the workplace and what is not. For them, flirtation and much that is forbidden in post-Anita Hill America, is part of ordinary interaction. And it doesn’t matter whether French women use the term “feminist” to describe themselves. 

Regarding appearance, you say that in France, "the sin is not the failure to meet a standard of perfection but an unwillingness to try." This sounds somewhat similar to the American obsession with physical perfection. How do the ideas about what is achievable differ in the two countries?
[In France] It is almost a civic duty to seduce—or if one cannot appear seductive, at least not to take a prominent spot on the public stage. By no means does everyone play along, but what is striking is how many people do. During the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the United States, both men and women in France questioned Bill Clinton’s judgment. That he was sexually aroused by a woman other than his wife was less of a shock than the fact that Monica Lewinsky was not especially attractive—and seemed to lack style and elegance. Men in public life, too, may be judged on their physical appearance. One reason that Barack Obama appeals to the French is his beauty. I was surprised that men—straight and gay alike—appreciate his good looks even more than women do.

The paradox is that the American quest for perfect looks is often viewed with disdain in France. A too-put-together look is a turn-off, a sign that someone is insecure and has tried too hard.

After so many years as a Paris correspondent, do you consider yourself "seduced" by France?
It depends on the day! I still get exasperated by the rigidity of so much of French life—the demand for still another obscure document to complete a dossier, the   compartmentalization of jobs that may make it necessary to be visited by three different repairmen before an oven can be fixed; the inclination to i"t’s-not-my-jobism" rather than how do I get a job done.

But I never, ever have taken living in Paris for granted. There has never been a day when I haven’t reveled in its beauty, or felt fortunate to live here. So in a sense, perhaps I have been seduced. I love to quote a character in a play by the 19th-century poet and playwright Henri de Bornier: “Every man has two countries, his own and France.” 

In my years living here, I have tried to make the country our own, even though I know that will never entirely happen. I will never think like the French, never shed my Americanness. Nor do I want to. And like an elusive lover who clings to mystery, France will never completely reveal herself to me. Even now, when I walk around a corner I anticipate that something pleasurable might happen, the next act in a process of perpetual seduction.



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