Author Elaine Sciolino. (Gabriela Sciolino Plump )
How the French Play the Game of Life
Times Books/Henry Holt: 340 pp., $27
Strategy is everything for the French. That's what Elaine Sciolino discovers in her book "La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life," a look at why the food is so delicious, the perfumes so beguiling, the languid conversation of Paris cafes so intoxicating, the French so, well, French. It's all part of a grand centuries-old game of seduction, a word with a much more expansive definition in French. Rather than a focus on the physical or the erotic, it is akin to what we would describe as allure, charm, persuasion or even style.
It's the highly ritualized kiss that then-President Jacques Chirac places on Sciolino's hand when the longtime New York Times correspondent arrives to interview him at the Elysée Palace on the eve of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, a campaign the French were opposed to. It's the story line that Charles de Gaulle used to rally his people in the wake of World War II as he created an image of a gallant France rather than one that had collaborated with the Nazis. It is, equally, an engaging dinner party guest who "might be gifted at caressing with words, at drawing people close with a look, at forging alliances with flawless logic. The target of seduction — male or female — may experience the process as a shower of charm or a magnetic pull." No physical contact required.
No romance either. Friends and family are continually seduced. A French woman might have a certain dish that she serves every time her grandchildren come over, something that will remind them of her for decades to come. A mother might decide which perfume scent to pass on to her daughter. The goal is to enrapture the other, to capture a moment — a memory — and give it immortality. (Hungry for a madeleine?)
For Sciolino, understanding the French art of seduction is the key to understanding France, a once-powerful global force reduced in recent centuries and even decades to a very well-dressed date whom suitors would rather gaze at than pay any real attention to. This is a country that, since the time of Louis XIV, had shown the world how to really live but had seen its global influence decline after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. So was born a national survival strategy to ensure that France would still matter. It would own culture, intelligence and refinement. And we would all want a part of it. In fact, seduction is portrayed by some in France as a form of war, though victory must seem effortless. It's a game to ferret out the weakness in someone else by sharing something pleasurable, wooing them to win them over. Merely defeating their designs isn't good enough.
Even when it relates to sex, it's not about the act but the process. Verbal sparring is key. As is a sense of mystery. In the words of a 17th century noblewoman, "Do not disclose the extent of your designs until it is no longer possible to oppose your success." Molière's protagonist Don Juan disguises himself and lies to conquer women, then abandons them. "[O]nce you are the master," he says, "there is nothing more to say or wish for: the joy of passionate pursuit is over." And overkill, the one thing we Americans excel at apparently, is out. If your eyes are made-up, don't wear lipstick. Perfume should be strong enough only to be smelled when someone is in kissing range.
It's important never to reveal too much in the bedroom. As fashion designer Sonia Rykiel put it: "Naked is not sexy."
The French believe they have a right to pleasure and are highly tolerant of their fellow citizens' private behavior. They don't seem to mind that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his stunning pop star wife, Carla Bruni, have had affairs and they weren't too distressed when the culture minister wrote openly of patronizing young male prostitutes abroad. While Americans have "proved time and again that they see a politician's cheating in marriage as tantamount to cheating on the voters and the country," the French "do not enjoy ugly revelations that disturb the surface and threaten the social fabric," Sciolino writes. In fact, male politicians are expected to exude virility as proof that they are able to handle the job. President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky was praised by even right-wing French politicians as a sign that he was a healthy male.
There have been calls for the French media to stop turning a blind eye to the private lives of public figures since the arrest last month of powerful Sarkozy rival Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty, that he sexually assaulted a New York hotel maid. A long-rumored history of serial womanizing had previously branded him nothing less than a "living legend" in France, but Puritan soil doesn't wash out so easily.
Do we Americans revel in a carafe of wine at lunch? Do we exalt the art of conversation? Do we marvel at the smiles, the cleavage, the legs of great marvels of Paris, its women? No, we are too hardworking, abstinent, eager and pragmatic. But where has it gotten France? Toward the end of her exhaustively researched treatise, Sciolino concludes that in the 21st century, seduction itself "is the best that France has to offer." So much for French exceptionalism, since seduction, by its very nature, is a form of delusion.
Low is an editor in The Times' book review.