Make Love Like a French Woman

Throw away the rule book and learn to live like a passionate Parisian.

Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw was a fish out of water in Paris.
Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw was a fish out of water in Paris.

When it comes to love, sex, marriage and motherhood, French women say relax. And we Americans should listen, according to Debra Ollivier’s bestseller What French Women Know, a witty examination of the French feminine mystique.

For generations, the world has known that French ladies are sophisticated and confident, sassy and sensual, and can rock a bustier like nobody’s business. But what we may not have noticed, says Ollivier, is that their views on relationships are in some ways strikingly different from American women’s, so much so that French females are able to enjoy life exponentially more than we are. Surprise, surprise.

Now, Ollivier, an American who has lived and raised children in Paris, is not saying French women are perfect. She is simply suggesting that we can learn a thing or two from them. For instance:

French women have a kinder, yet more realistic view of men. News flash: There is no major war of the sexes going on across the pond. No American-style bitch sessions about boyfriends and husbands happening at Parisian gatherings. In France, says Olliver, there’s a general acceptance of the many traits—from 5 o’clock shadows to the perplexing inability to throw their underwear into the hamper—that set many heterosexual men apart from us. But unlike American women, mademoiselles have, for the most part, made peace with these masculine quirks and genuinely love and appreciate men for who they are. That’s probably why there’s no self segregation at social gatherings. At parties, French women don’t sit in hen-like clusters while their men huddle at the bar. Instead, the genders mingle, sit boy-girl at the dinner table, and not only accept, but expect, flirting as part of even their most platonic interactions with the opposite sex.

They have cultivated the art of not giving a damn. Especially about their age, their mothering style, and what people think. French women are not seeking perfection or packaged beauty. They believe in the seductive attributes of an inner life, know that intelligence is sexy and love is ageless. It does help that French popular culture reaffirms those notions; refreshingly, French films depict just as many romantic liaisons between middle-aged folks as between twentysomethings. Furthermore, those actresses are Botox and silicon free, with the subtle lines on their faces making them all the more beautiful and complex. Says Ollivier, older French women are sexy not because they work hard to look young, but because they act like grownups and understand that their experience is a turn-on to men and women alike.

They don’t shut it down the second they become moms. Here in the States, after becoming a mother, a woman is often perceived either as an all-sacrificing maternal figure or a self-centered MILF. The French don’t fall for these extreme stereotypes, and recognize that most moms fall somewhere in the middle. While they are dedicated and affectionate parents, French moms don’t spend spend excessive amounts of time fretting about their children and making them the center of their universe. And they find it not only healthy, but in their (and their partners’) best interest to reclaim their their pre-baby mojo as quickly as possible after childbirth. This goal is actually supported by the French government: At her postpartum checkup, an American woman gets a one-minute vaginal exam and a lecture on birth control. You know what a French mama gets? Free electro-Kegel rejuvenation sessions to set her love life back on track. I did not just make that up.

They don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. Despite their passionate reputation, French women value discretion and privacy. They strive to maintain an air of mystery, unlike tell-all Americans who find it appropriate to discuss everything, from their recent pap smear results to the details of their sex lives, during a lunch date. According to Ollivier, Americans out on the dating scene often put all their cards on the table too soon, a practice that would disgust most French dames. (Feel like a failure because you’re not married at 35? Still pining over your ex-husband? Keep it to yourself, please!) The fact that the French don’t dispense so easily with personal information makes them all the more alluring.

They accept ambiguity in love. Remember that childhood song where you pick off the petals of a flower and recite, “He loves me, he loves me not?” Here’s the French girls’ version of that: “Il m’aime un peau, beaucoup, passionnement, a la folie, pas du tout…” (He loves me a little, a lot, passionately, madly, not at all.”) So, while American girls are seesawing between perfect love and utter rejection, French youths are being trained to think of romance in nuances. While we lust after happy endings and closure, they’re comfortable with emotional subtleties and shades of gray, with “an openness to experiencing life in all its ravishing complexity.”

They despise The Rules. This acceptance of ambiguity may explain why French women don’t sit at their computers seeking expert advice on love, and why they don’t rely on some rulebook to help them land a husband. They are also reluctant to label relationships. Terms like “going steady” and even “dating” perplex French women, who don’t need their relationships to be so tightly defined from the get-go. They aren’t as goal oriented as Americans (“Just where is this relationship going already?!”), because they know that preparing too much for the future can prevent them from appreciating the moment. In fact, there is even a “willingness to contemplate or accept an experience that doesn’t necessarily go anywhere in particular”—Gasp! No closure!—”but that is still an essential and necessary part of love, sex and being human.” This may explain why in many French films, strangers meet in a café, hook up for one beautiful night, and then part ways forever. A one night stand? Let’s not be so bourgeois as to label it, darling.

This ambiguousness, of course, is simply “Not OK” in our culture, where women (and sometimes men) demand answers and always seem to be striving to reach a new level of commitment, whether it’s Exclusivity, or The Ring, or the Wedding Date. Those are all respectable aspirations, especially for those who want to raise a family, but according to Ollivier, obsessively goal-oriented romance can also dampen the fun and connection two people have, not to mention turn into a battle if their romantic goals are not perfectly matched.

If that’s the case, an American woman might say, “It just wasn’t meant to be.” For a French lass, it might just be. Because she understands that everyone could use a little ravishing complexity from time to time.

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