During my last visit to France I visited my beautician. I have known Chantal, who works in a salon in Montpellier, for 15 years and I always pop in for a facial and to talk about the latest skincare products. This year, she had some unusual advice for me. And it had nothing to do with my skincare regime.
“Get yourself a younger man,” she said conspiratorially. “At our age we need a young man to keep life interesting.”
I tried to explain that while this might be acceptable behaviour in France, in England husbands take a rather dim view of their wives sleeping around. Especially with young colts.
“Oh well you don’t have to tell him,” she laughed. “You know what things are like here; everyone does their own thing in their own corner.”
I have heard that expression about corners before. France is of course a country that has always been famous for infidelity, where many married couples view the cinq à sept a bit like our afternoon tea.
But for the French women of une certain age it now seems the “corner”, whether she’s married or not, contains a man half her age.
According to a recent survey carried out by the French statistical bureau Insée, 16 per cent of relationships are now made up of an older woman and a younger man, compared with just 10 per cent in 1960.
This could in part be due to a number of high-profile and hugely popular couples. Emmanuel Macron for example. This hugely charismatic 38-year-old is married to his former secondary school teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 20 years older than him. Another power-cougar couple is made up of the newsreader Claire Chazal who is 60 and her boyfriend Arnaud Lemaire, a 40-year old model. Such is Chazal’s popularity that when I first spoke to a friend in Paris about this article her first reaction was “you have to be nice about Claire, she is very well respected and loved here”.
But apart from popular power couples, along with the immense popularity of shows like Cougar Town, what other reasons are there for the inexorable rise of la cougar?
Emily, a friend of mine who grew up in Paris and lived there until she was in her mid-twenties before moving back to England, thinks it is in part due to the diminishing importance of the patriarch in French society. “In France the balance has shifted relatively recently to a more level playing field,” she says. “Women now have the power themselves in terms of earning money and being independent. So when they look for a lover, power is not necessarily the first thing they go for. Personally I’d say it’s about time; I’ve never known a nation of women suffer so much to be beautiful. I would go out with French friends and while they were nibbling a lettuce leaf, I’d be stuffing bread rolls into my mouth and drinking wine.
“You visit any town in France and there will be a hairdresser and a lingerie shop on every corner. The culture of looking good for your man is as strong as it ever was. We lost that in the 1950s.”
In France age is no barrier to being sexy. A friend of mine whose children were at the school Brigitte Trogneux taught at remembers vividly the first time she met her. “We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing tight leather trousers and stilettoes and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. I have no idea at all what she said, I was just utterly mesmerised. St Louis de Gonzague is not the kind of school where teachers wear leather trousers! But she looked incredible.”
The confidence French women carry with them as they age may be one reason they feel happy to sleep with younger men. As Clarisse, a Bordeaux-based advertising executive who in a relationship with a man who is eight years younger, puts it: “Women are now hotter for longer, whereas men seem to be going the other way with their paunches and lack of desire to stay young. In France it is typical of men to turn into their fathers once they hit 40. There is a preconception among men that middle age starts then. When I look around at my friends I see that are definitely ageing better than our male counterparts, so it’s only natural we should look to younger men.”
According to the philosopher Pascal Bruckner, the rise of la cougar is also due to a change in attitude when it comes to the older woman/younger man combination, a more feminist take on it. “The female libido doesn’t just go to sleep after children or even after the menopause,” he told French Elle. “A few years ago an older woman with a younger man was seen as something to laugh at, she was viewed as bit of a vieille coquette (an old flirt). Nowadays you can see something of a victory in the equality of the situation.”
Maybe the women even have the better deal now? As Agnès, a 40-something Parisian with a lover who is 29 sums up: “Older men have Viagra, but we women have the cougar attitude. I have never felt or looked better. He has invigorated me in a way I couldn’t imagine at my age. It’s like being a teenager again. I feel incredible.”
Caroline, who is in her late 40s and lives in Lyon, got divorced six years ago and now has a 33-year-old boyfriend. “Why would I look for what I just left?” she says when I asked her about her decision to go for a younger man. “I don’t need another fat husband and a lot of complications. And the younger generation of men are much more in touch with how women feel, and they love to make you feel good in bed, it makes them feel powerful and in control.”
For those not lucky enough to happen upon younger men, there is a French website called cougars-avenue.com. According to the home page it was set up to “offer a unique dating service for consenting adults who want to enjoy inter-generational relationships”. With Cougars Avenue “you’re guaranteed a date with someone who knows what they want”.
The testimonials make for interesting reading. Veronique, for example, who describes herself as a Versailles-based cougar, says: “Two weeks after subscribing I met a few young men whose energy matched mine perfectly”. There is even a testimony from a rather grateful young man in Clermont who claims that he had always been “unlucky in love” and never “dared to find love with an older woman” but is now happily being taught everything they know. One assumes the gratitude is reciprocal.
So what’s in it for the men? One of the most famous toy boys in France is a literary creation by the writer Colette, who was herself renowned for her taste for young men. Her book, Chéri, which was made into a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer, is about a young man’s love for an older woman. In it, the heroine Léa devotes herself to the amorous education of the beautiful young Chéri. When the time comes for Chéri to marry, he finds it impossible to leave her. Aged 49, she holds more allure for him than his young wife.
Another literary toy boy was the writer Balzac, who had many older lovers because, as he put it, “our young girls are too concerned with making a rich match, passion comes later”. This view is echoed by Jérôme, a Parisian man in his 30s who has had a string of older girlfriends. “To be honest I find young women a pain. They’re demanding and selfish. Older women don’t need you to tell them you love them constantly or expect you to buy them presents. They are secure in themselves and have the money to pay for whatever they want. It’s much less complicated. Added to which they know what the want in bed, which is extremely sexy.” Another friend of mine called Thierry points out that “you make good soup in old pots, with new carrots”.
La Cougar may be a relatively recent phenomenon in modern France, but there is at least one example from the past that will inspire French women today. The iconic French singer Edith Piaf married Théo Sarapo a Greek hairdresser turned singer and actor who was 20 years her junior. One of the results of this union was that she was denied a funeral mass when she died. Funeral mass or young lover? Hardly a tricky choice. Maybe her famous song Je ne regrette rien was prophetic.