So chic, so thin … but oh la la, so dull
French women eclipse all as the epitome of female perfection, but they work so hard at it they’re no fun. For that you need British girls, says Helena Frith Powell
But it is not only French-women’s famed chic that sets them apart from the rest of us mortals. An academic study published last week concluded that Frenchwomen were the best in Europe at everything: they live longest (on a par with the Spanish), are the most successful at work and make the best mothers, too.
How do they do it? Through hard work and determination. For example, weeks after the birth of my third baby in Béziers, a bustling city in the south of France, a physio prepared to give me a pelvic examination and asked me to squeeze his fingers using my pelvic muscles.
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s good for your health,” he replied. “But mainly it’s good for your husband.”
So there lies the secret: France is still a chauvinist society. To survive, women need to use all their charms. Even if you have just had a child, you have to make an effort. “The arrival of a child does not signify a change in identity,” the family sociologist François de Singly said recently. “The French mother understands the need to keep her professional life and preserve her qualities of seduction.”
To ensure that Frenchwomen can breed but still have the time and money for manicures, the state has created a support network.
In Britain it wouldn’t have been worth my while working once I’d paid for childcare. Here you can very easily work, should you want to. There are municipal crèches, subsidised childminders and every primary school has a maternelle section, free for any child over two.
The French system encourages women to have children. In fact, the more children you have in France the easier life gets, so no wonder Frenchwomen’s fertility rate is also the highest in Europe, on a par with the Irish at 1.9 children per woman (in Britain it is 1.7).
Once you’ve had three children you become what they call a famille nombreuse. This gives you all sorts of perks, such as half-price first-class rail travel. You also pay significantly less tax the more children you have. One of my French winemaking friends, who has had four children, is always in profit at the end of the year.
Giving birth in England and France are very different experiences. A couple of hours after giving birth to our daughter in Sussex I was starving. The nurse told me to go and make myself a piece of toast. I could hardly walk but managed to drag myself to a rather unpleasant kitchen where another starving mother was eating dry bread. Here in France a uniformed caterer came into my private room with a menu and asked what I would prefer to eat.
In keeping with their desire to stay sexy, Frenchwomen are not as keen on breastfeeding as British women. One mother who lives locally told me: “My breasts are for my husband.”
But they are obsessed with what they feed their children once they are weaned. Alexandra, a French friend, was horrified to see me cooking chicken nuggets and chips. “How can you feed them that rubbish?” she asked. “You wouldn’t eat it yourself, would you?” She had a point. I have now become a French mother in terms of feeding my children. No more easy options; they even get homemade ice cream.
Frenchwomen are disciplined. Coco Chanel once said “elegance is refusal”. This seems to me a mantra most of them live by. An extremely chic Parisian told me she hadn’t had a croissant for 12½ years (not that she was counting).
French discipline starts early. I was on the beach where my daughters were playing with some other girls. The ice-cream man came along and I offered to buy them all one. “No,” said their pencil-thin, scarily elegant mother, “it’s not tea-time.” It was actually half past three, so not a million miles away, but she preferred to let her children weep and stick to the rules.
So intransigence is bred at an early age. It is what makes Frenchwomen so dictatorial when it comes to their own beauty regime. For a Frenchwoman, looking good means having perfect nails, hair, make-up and underwear. A Frenchwoman will wear only matching underwear.
I have now been somehow brainwashed into doing the same. But when I first moved here I asked a friend why they are all obsessed with matching smalls. She looked at me rather condescendingly and asked: “Is there any other kind?” But French wonder-women do have one weak point. They don’t have much fun. It is odd that joie de vivre is a French phrase. Frenchwomen seem to be so busy living up to the brand — slim, perfect and cultivated — that they rarely let themselves go.
I arranged to meet a male friend in Paris and asked him if I could bring some other women along. “As long as they’re not French,” he told me. He said he was sick of watching them eat nothing, nurse one half glass of wine all night and never laugh.
France’s It girl, Hermine de Clermont-Tonnerre, agrees. She says she prefers the company of Brits so much that she even married one. “I love the English,” she says. “You’re so crazy and funny. Everything in France is so heavy.”
As a place to bring up children if you’re a working mother, France is a great country. But for a fun date, don’t count on a Frenchwoman.
More France Please, We’re British by Helena Frith Powell is available at The Sunday Times Books First priced £8.49 plus 99p p&p (RRP £9.99) on 0870 165 8585 or visit www.timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019