a guest Jan 22nd, 2020 57 Never
Not a member of Pastebin yet? Sign Up, it unlocks many cool features!
- From flirting to philandering – the truth about the sex lives of the French
- I thought I was immune to clichés. Apparently not. A dinner cruise on the Seine? In moonlit Paris? Oh crikey. And why not with Barry White accompaniment? But I tried the cruise, and it wasn’t naff at all. I’ve rarely been so delighted. Not on a boat, anyway.
- It was all candlelight, low live music, fillet of venison and Côtes-du-Rhône. Monumental Paris slipped past, medieval in an illumination that threw shadows enough for skulduggery. Notre Dame was still entire, magnificent in chiaroscuro. The Eiffel Tower lit up, somewhere between a tart and a grande dame. I sipped the wine, we floated downstream, I was inebriated in a good way. I could imagine no more romantic setting.
- All it lacked was a partner. My wife was back home and I’ve never had a mistress, in Paris or anywhere else. Romance-wise, this was a drawback, but it also left more to the imagination. And let me tell you that Côtes-du-Rhône can knock the imagination into overdrive.
- I’d fallen again. Paris as the city of Romance? There’s no fighting it. Spared by wars, Paris physically recounts its own story – the buildings expressing all the fragile grandeur of France’s past. Such surrounds encourage elegance. In general, Parisian – indeed, French – men and women tend to dress better, walk better, and eat and drink with more style than other peoples. I don’t mean they all do; there are Worzel Gummidges from Calais to Nice. I mean, that’s the tendency. If you’d recently travelled from the Riviera to Lancashire, as I have, you’d not be arguing.
- French history has also imposed unusual formality on daily life. All that “Monsieur” and “Madame” and the initial use of “vous” opens a slight distance between people. This allows space for gentle mystery in a way our Anglo-American mateyness does not. It’s the difference between “Alright, Sharon?” and “Bonsoir, madame”. Thus are fostered flirting and seduction, both central to French life. But the word “seduction” in France roams wider than its English equivalent. It envelops not only sex appeal but intellectual prowess, community of interest, kindredness of spirit and the general process by which one might be attracted to anything somewhat sensually. People are always being seduced in France – by a play, a book, an idea, an interior décor – without taking their clothes off.
- seine at night
- Anthony was smitten with the views on a Seine cruise, when Notre Dame was still intact Credit: iStock
- And then, of course, they take their clothes off – for all this seduction feeds into romance and sex. It’s part and parcel of the same process which, for want of a better word, we might call “life”. Thus, sex rarely comes as a surprise in France as it invariably does in Anglo-Saxon countries, where the tabloid press, with leering obsessiveness, raises the alarm on a regular basis. As the astutest US observer of French life, Adam Gopnik, wrote, if we leave aside sex by force and with children, “the rest is just human comedy, unfolding as it will”. The French, in short, simply get on with it, sans prurience.
- Bathed in puritanism, the English-speaking world is so nervous of sex that it appears sometimes to be concerned with little else. Janet Jackson has a wardrobe malfunction – and the UK and US go into melt-down (It’s the puritans, not the libertines, who obsessively place sex in the public domain.) In Paris, families file into the Crazy Horse Saloon where women on stage have rarely been other than nearly naked. It’s not considered smutty, for there is no direct French translation of “smut”. It’s just what French people watch, alongside opera, Molière, PSG, Gérard Depardieu and overweight variety shows on TV.
- France wasn’t always libertine (and still isn’t, always; we’ll come to that in a moment). Granted, the idea of courtly love was strongest in, especially, southern France. Eleventh and 12th century troubadours warbled winsomely about a love at once “illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined,” as historian Francis X Newman wrote. But courtly love’s elevation of femininity – noble! spiritual! moral! – scarcely thrilled the church, which subsequently put the cap on merrier medieval mores.
- Although not quite completely. The upper classes, intellectuals and monarchs considered they had dispensation – not least because marriage, in these spheres, wasn’t for love but for money, rank, and property. One went roaming for real love elsewhere, whence the mythic threesome of husband, wife and mistress. In aristocratic circles, the reigns of Louis XIII and XIV were, a French historian once said, “the promised land for adultery”. The common perception was that the nobility were at it like knives. This annoyed le peuple, itself subject to church and state strictures. It has even been suggested that one cause of the 1789 French revolution was sexual envy, though I’d treat that with caution.
- Certainly, though, the Revolution initially brought liberation, both of morals – Paris’ Palais Royal hosted sex shows and whores (to one of whom Napoleon lost his virginity) – and also for women. They could now marry, initiate divorce and own property in their own right, not merely as chattels of fathers or husbands. It didn’t last. Love and sex, because spontaneous, were too revolutionary for a revolution which, like most revolutions, distrusted private life.
- Independent women, too, were a threat. By 1794, they were back on their husbands’ arms (and, ideally, pregnant) in line with Robespierre’s policy of “Virtue” – conjugal morality being a condition of civic morality – backed by Terror.
- But you can’t keep a good culture down. Things loosened. By the mid-19th century, there were 200 legal brothels in Paris. By some estimates, 13 per cent of Parisian women worked in one. This continued into the Belle Époque. Regulars at the ultra-luxurious bordel near the Louvre, Le Chabanais included Toulouse-Lautrec and, later, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. Duke Ellington and Jean-Paul Sartre allegedly frequented the rival Le Sphinx. As did Marlene Dietrich for, along with the bedrooms, Le Sphinx had a high-class bar for those who wished to go no further. Both establishments were used by the French government for the entertaining of foreign dignitaries. In the official timetables, such a diversion was characterised as: “Visit to the president of the Senate.”
- Meanwhile, the can-can had been frothing up cabaret shows since the 1850s, encapsulating the particularly Parisian mix of the exotic, sophisticated and raunchy. (Also the athletic: the dance is unbelievably demanding.) Into the 20th century, the matchless Josephine Baker was bringing her own brand of topless allure to the Parisian stage. This was considered neither seedy nor coarse but bang on mainstream. Compare and contrast with Soho shows in London.
- The brothels were outlawed in 1946. Sexual morality was an issue but more so, assuredly, was the fact that les filles had been remarkably accommodating to German officers. Goering frequented Le Chabanais. This didn’t play well in the post-war world. But, as France put itself back together in the 1950s and 1960s, so the intellectual, political and literary élite carried on as before. Hugely successful author Colette, “the queen of bi-sexuality”, died in 1954. In her 50s, she’d had an affair with her 17-year-old stepson, which apparently hadn’t tarnished her reputation any.
- moulin rouge
- Moulin Rouge in the red light district of Pigalle is a tourist favourite Credit: iStock
- The same year, Anne Desclos, writing as “Pauline Réage”, published The Story Of O, a wildly explicit tale of female submission. She apparently wrote it as a love letter to her eminent literary critic husband, who was a fan of the writings of the Marquis de Sade. It won at least one major literary prize. I cannot imagine any of that happening in Britain – or indeed, anywhere else but France. If you’ve read the book (or most works by de Sade), you’ll maybe agree.
- The Parisian events of May 1968 re-slackened the stays of popular morality. Whether this was considered a good or a bad thing, it was undoubtedly a thing. Licence became as widespread as France’s image abroad had always suggested it was. A 2017 survey maintained that Parisians had, on average, slept with 19 people each – around double the London figure. It is claimed that 44 per cent had slept with someone without knowing his or her name.
- Post-1968 tolerance extended to the upper echelons, aided by privacy laws and a craven press, which failed to mention that President Mitterrand had not only mistresses but an entire parallel family lodged at the public expense. President Chirac was an ardent adulterer, known apparently as “Mr Three Minutes, Shower Included”. When French people I know heard about all this, they barely broke step. No big deal. “C’est normal” was their reaction to philandering as to so many other love-related complexities more pleasurable to contemplate than to solve.
- That said, it’s been a bit less normal since Dominique Strauss-Kahn gave libertinism a bad name in a hotel room in New York. Subsequently, #MeToo-ism has prospered as a suspicion grew that ooh-la-la and the rest put a liberal, titillating gloss on the exploitation of women.
- But France remains France. When #MeToo was at max volume, Catherine Deneuve was one of a hundred prominent French women to sign a letter published in Le Monde that suggested, among much else, that a man shouldn’t necessarily lose his job for attempting to “steal a kiss” or “touch a knee”, that “chatting up, even if insistent or clumsy, isn’t an offence, nor courteousness a sign of macho aggression.” They detected in the movement evidence of that puritanism which, in the name of protecting women, infantilises them as perpetual victims.
- Who knows where the truth lies? All I know is that I’ve been in love with Ms Deneuve since Belle de Jour and would never argue with her. We will, anyway, have more delightful things to discuss when I invite her on my next Seine dinner cruise.
RAW Paste Data