What French women REALLY think of us!
Helena Frith-Powell was initially very intimidated by the elegant Frenchwomen she met when she first moved to France in 2000. Here she asks three French women what they really think about Brits
We have always felt threatened by our French counterparts, and with good reason. They seem so effortlessly chic.
When I first moved to France in 2000, I was so intimidated by the elegant Frenchwomen with their self-denying habits (‘elegance is refusal’, opined Coco Chanel, a woman who never had to brush eclair crumbs from her eponymous suit), that I often felt like strangling them with their perfectly tied Hermès scarves.
As I soon discovered, it is very time-consuming, not to mention costly, to look this good tout le temps.
And therein lies the difference between us: the French believe this is a price worth paying – that denying yourself life’s pleasures, undergoing painful beauty procedures, and ensuring you’re still attractive, not just to your husband but to all men, is a woman’s privilege. While we, on the whole, do not.
You might easily argue that the British attitude is best, that life is for getting out there and having fun, not for spending hours navel-gazing. And yet, although I sometimes yearn for British overindulgence and (let’s be honest) laziness, I have learnt to admire the French woman’s age-defying dedication, and her sheer honesty.
Ask a French woman what she really thinks of us Brits and she will answer quite openly, some might say brutally, as these women reveal…
Danielle Barbereau, 58, moved to the UK in 1980 after studying English in France. She is a relationship counsellor and lives in Sheffield. She has been divorced for 20 years and has two daughters aged 22 and 31.
The one thing that sets French women apart from British ones is the understanding that a good relationship – and great sex – are the secrets to true beauty.
It has nothing to do with the right shoes, perfect hair or immaculate make-up. It comes from the inside. I’ve recently fallen in love again and my friends tell me my skin and eyes are glowing. But I am not surprised.
In France we are very comfortable with love and sex. Walk around Paris and you will see couples of all ages kissing and flirting. We know it’s good for us, whereas British women – and men – still don’t celebrate it in the same way.
British women seem more prone to complaining about their relationships instead of focusing on what is good about their partner.
Even within long-term relationships, French women know love is as vital to the way they look as it is to their happiness, so looking after a man is a skill we are taught by our mothers from a young age.
I don’t mean doing his washing. I mean understanding that offering him support, love and kindness means he will love you even more – and you’ll be happier as a result.
Despite the rumours that affairs are rife within French marriages, my experiences as a relationships counsellor tell me otherwise. Maybe they are tolerated in the upper echelons of French society, but it really isn’t the norm among the middle classes.
French women are hurt by infidelity just as much as British women are. I think the cliche stems from the Fifties when women were dependent on their husbands and were intent on keeping them no matter what he did.
But attitudes have changed and French women now have more confidence and self-esteem, and expect their men to woo them, too. Although we all need our own interests so as not to suffocate one another, in France women don’t really go out with their friends in large groups for drinks – we tend to socialise in couples.
French women are never sluttish. They look after and respect their bodies, but understand that showing them off is not alluring. I also wish British women would adopt the French attitude to grooming: it’s a necessity, not a luxury – they are worth it.
I have my nails done and my hair blow-dried once a week. It means I can throw on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and still look stylish. If you are well groomed you can get away with being casual.
Even dressed up, you won’t see a French woman wearing lots of make-up, or a pair of high heels she can’t walk in.
We don’t focus on our flaws the way British women do, and would never discuss them with a man – why would you want to draw his attention to your cellulite, saggy arms or other insecurities?
Although French women rarely let themselves go, neither do we see the point in pretending to be 30 when you’re 60. I find the idea of having plastic surgery baffling.
French women embrace ageing – look at how beautiful Catherine Deneuve is in her 70s. We are confident and have a more relaxed attitude to getting older, so we radiate inner beauty, which even young French men find alluring.
It’s sad that so many of my British friends report feeling invisible as they age. If only they could embrace their maturity and realise that with age should come joie de vivre and confidence — what is known in France as un certain charme.
Muriel Demarcus, 43, grew up in the south of France, but moved to the UK for work 13 years ago. She lives in West London with her 44-year-old husband, a business manager, and two daughters, 16-year-old Agie and 11-year-old Audrey.
When I’m back in France, in Paris or my native Provence, I feel like a normal woman in her 40s – an engineer by training and the mother of two daughters. But here in London, where I have lived for more than a decade, I feel like a living, breathing goddess.
Why? At first it baffled me. Then I realised that as a Frenchwoman my standards are higher and my discipline stricter. I am not allowed to let myself go to the same extent British women so often do.
It’s a difficult truth to confront, but French women living in the UK do benefit from the comparison.
It is all an attitude of mind. I would no more wear a pair of tracksuit bottoms, for example, than I would eat a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps as a mid-morning snack (Frenchwomen do not snack).
Instead I buy Parisian undies from Princesse Tam Tam (princessetamtam.co.uk). In baking and in lingerie, the French have infinitely more sophisticated taste.
In Paris I feel fat. In London I feel skinny. It helps that we are not so politically correct. When we go to the doctor in France, they put us on the scales, and if we weigh too much, they are not afraid to tell us.
If you have just had a baby, they will cut you some slack and give you a few weeks to lose it – but not for much longer than that. In France, all women are given a state-funded course of post-birth physiotherapy, to repair the strength of crucial muscles and – importantly – to reclaim a flat tummy.
A friend of mine, two stone overweight a year after having a baby, was told by her doctor she looked ‘like a cow’. It was harsh, but it worked and she lost the extra rolls of fat.
This pressure to look and act in a feminine way is not always a blessing. If a Frenchwoman goes to work without make-up on, or wearing a pair of casual trousers rather than a formal skirt, people will comment. ‘What’s wrong with you today? Why are you letting yourself go?’
If you haven’t brushed your hair, colleagues are quite likely to gossip behind your back and wonder whether you’re depressed, since you look so sloppy. You are expected to look like a woman, but it is also quite subtle. Skirts should not be too short, or you will be accused of trying to dress like a teenager.
But that’s how we are brought up – with a sense of restraint and pride in all things.
And the British are undoubtedly less restrained than the French when it comes to one subject in particular: sex. Or at least talking about it.
British women talk about sex in one of two ways – either to lament the lack of it from overworked husbands or to wearily confess they’d rather get stuck into a good book.
But we French don’t talk like this. We would rather invest our time and energy into the marital bed. The less you talk, the more you do.
The subtler you are, the sexier. (This also applies to French underwear – always matching, always beautiful, as opposed to the British version, which looks as though it would go up in flames if you struck a match in the bedroom.)
Meanwhile, it’s assumed our husbands are all having affairs. Whenever anyone asks me if this is true, I smile enigmatically and shrug as though, yes, it might be. But of course it’s not. We keep them far too busy for other women.
It’s about self-control, not denial. When I have a breakfast meeting, I drink a coffee; here, everyone seems to wolf down pastries – even bacon sandwiches! Frenchwomen take the time for a proper meal at lunch – eating at the desk is frowned upon – but they will have fresh things, nothing processed.
The other day I saw some teenage girls buying chips for their lunch – and that was it. Never, ever, would a French girl do this.
HOW TO FAKE IT AS A FRENCH WOMAN
Have a French manicure
But not that horrible look where the ends of your nails are painted white. French nails come in one colour only and it’s Ballerina by Chanel. By all means do it yourself at home – French women do – but keep it up all year round.
Stay up to date with current affairs
To be sexy, you need to be interesting and intelligent, too. A French woman wouldn’t slump on the sofa watching endless soaps.
French women understand that in order to stay attractive they have to be engaged – and engaging.
Never be needy
Confidence is a big part of a French woman’s weaponry. She sees herself as attractive at any age and will never moan about how old she looks because she believes ageing well is attractive
Sleep smart: French women are sticklers for not sleeping on the side of your face as it causes wrinkles – and knowing they’re worth their eight hours’ sleep.
Brigitte Bloch, 63, has been in Britain since 2009. She moved here with her husband, Philippe, 62, to open the BB Bakery in Covent Garden, London. They have two children aged 30 and 28
Sometimes my style is flashy, but other times it’s understated. I don’t want to look like I’m 40, but I do dress younger than I am. People say ‘You can’t be 63!’ more in Britain than in France, where many women look fantastic well into their 80s.
I’ve noticed that women here don’t seem to have the same energy as French women do. I don’t particularly like being in my 60s but French women focus on making our good bits better and on enjoying life. I have some grey hair but have it dyed, and I’m not afraid to keep it longer as I think it suits me best.
British women seem to approach ageing differently to the French. They worry more about ageing, they slow down and talk themselves into being old before their time.
Still, most French women of my age will have spent a lifetime subconsciously ensuring they won’t be fat, grey or unfashionable by the time they reach their 60s.
We were taught by our mothers to be disciplined. So I will eat a baguette with butter in the morning if I want to, or try a new cake in my bakery or drink red wine. But then I will be careful for the rest of the day to balance it out.
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. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
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