Vive le Toy Boy: Why French women want a younger man
A survey in France has found that relationships between older women and younger men are on the rise. French couples explain the benefits of an age
During my last visit to France I visited my beautician. I have known Chantal for 15 years. She works in a salon in Montpellier and I always pop in for a facial and to talk about the latest skincare products when I’m there. 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 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.
Yet for French women of un certain âge it now seems that the “corner”, whether she’s married or not, contains a much younger man.
According to figures obtained by the French statistical bureau Insée, 16 per cent of relationships are made up of an older woman and a younger man, compared with only 10 per cent in 1960. That proportion is likely to increase, the study finds.
There are certainly some high-profile couples who are an example of this. Take Emmanuel Macron, France’s former economics minister, who resigned last month and is expected to run for the presidency. The charismatic 38-year-old is married to his former secondary school teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, who is some 20 years older than him. Or consider Laurence Ferrari, a well-known newsreader whose husband Renauld Capuçon, a violinist, is ten years her junior. News presenter Claire Chazal, 59, and Arnaud Lemaire, a 40-year old model, were another recent couple.
Apart from a celebrity precedent, what other reasons are there for the rise of le Toy Boy? “Women who have a good social standing and are financially independent seem to find it easier to express their sexual needs,” says Aline Perraudin, editor in chief of Santé Magazinein Paris.
Emily, a British friend who grew up in Paris, agrees, citing 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 and wealth is not necessarily the first thing they go for.”
She thinks that French women have long been crying out for this cultural shift. “For all their talk of liberté, I always found French attitudes very old-fashioned. I’ve never known a nation of women who suffer so much to be beautiful. 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. I am delighted to hear women are now looking good for younger men.”
Perhaps because French women take such good care of themselves, age is no barrier to being sexy. A friend whose children attended the school at which Trogneux taught remembers vividly the first time she met her. “We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing skin-tight leather trousers and stilettos and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. She looked incredible.”
The confidence that French women carry as they age may mean that they feel comfortable sleeping with younger men. Meanwhile, men who reach a certain age find themselves descending into unattractive “middle age”. My friend Clarisse, a Bordeaux-based advertising executive, is having an affair with a man who is eight years younger.
She says: “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. We are definitely ageing better than our male counterparts, so it’s only natural we should look to younger men.”
The philosopher Pascal Bruckner believes that this trend is a product of growing gender equality in France. “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.”
This sentiment is echoed on the French dating website cougars-avenue.com, which links up younger men with older women. It promises users a date with “someone who knows what they want”.
The site’s testimonials make for interesting reading. Veronique from Versailles writes: “Two weeks after subscribing I met a few young men whose energy matched mine perfectly.” Another is from a young man in Clermont-Ferrand 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 he knows.
The 19th-century French writer Balzac 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 today by Jérôme, a Parisian man in his thirties who has had several older girlfriends. “To be honest I find young women a pain. Older women don’t need you to tell them you love them constantly or expect you to buy them presents. It’s much less complicated. Added to which they know what they want in bed, which is extremely sexy.”
Helena Frith Powell’s Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles, published by Gibson Square, is out now
Laetitia and Benoît
‘We kissed for five hours, oblivious to our friends’ — Laetitia Zuccarelli, 45
We met at a friend’s party two and a half years ago. It was strange. I saw him, pointed and said to my friend: “He’s the one.” I think we only exchanged names five hours later, having spent that time kissing on the sofa, oblivious to our friends’ chuckling. When we did finally talk, I immediately blurted out the fact that I was 42 and had a 17-year-old daughter. But I was shocked to learn just how young Benoît was. Maybe if we’d had that conversation before kissing we would have censored ourselves.
At the beginning I was afraid of what people might say, and of the day my age would begin to show. But Benoît has totally reassured me on that front. We don’t feel that different. We’re just two very compatible people in love. I wasn’t looking for a stepfather for my daughter, who was almost grown up. The advantage over older men I have lived with before is that I can enjoy a night life with Benoît. Before, I’d go out on my own. We work together too — in Cowboy, the jewellery shop that I opened. Benoît does admin and sales. I look after design. Women enjoy buying their jewellery from Benoît.
‘Age is not a factor I take into consideration’ — Benoît Decourchelle, 34
Differences in age have never been an issue for me. I caught sight of Laetitia out of the corner of my eye as she walked by. We just couldn’t stop kissing as soon as we met. I could tell in her eyes when she told me her age that it was important to her. “Great,” I said. “Whatever.” It’s not a factor I take into consideration. Maybe if we were living in a small provincial town it’d be different, but in Paris it’s not a big deal. We immediately established that neither of us wanted to have children together. At first Laetitia’s daughter thought “who is this guy who is out partying with my mother?” She was worried I would take her mother away. As there was no preconceived role for me, we had to invent our relationship. I think that in France, there’s a belief that virility is based on seniority. For a man to seem a man, he has to be bigger than the woman on all fronts, otherwise his manhood is diminished. But we don’t think that way. Our friends don’t either.
Interviews by Chloe Baker
Élodie and Olivier
‘At the party I asked him to dance. I didn’t care what anyone thought’ — Élodie Bernard, 48
We met at work, we are both lawyers. I noticed Olivier when he started at the firm four years ago. I thought he was attractive; he looked like the kind of man I would have gone for when I was a student. We got on very well, we had a lot in common and there was always a little bit of flirtation. Eventually I started to think more about Olivier as a real possibility.
A few months of this went on and I would veer between thinking I should make a move and then thinking I was risking my professional reputation and would look like an old fool. My friends were divided; some said I should go for it, that if I was feeling this strongly then he must be too. Others said he was probably just being friendly and polite to an older woman who was also his boss and that he would be horrified if he thought I was attracted to him. We would often go out for a few drinks and I would wonder if it might finally happen.
At the Christmas party three years ago I had a few too many glasses of champagne and asked him to dance. At that point I didn’t care what anyone thought, I just had to know. I could tell he felt the same way and we left the party straight away. I am under no illusions; he may well want to find a younger woman and settle down and have children one day, even though he says he doesn’t. But our relationship really suits me.
My ex-husband was older than me and wealthy, so I felt well looked after, but actually I can look after myself, which I didn’t really realise until I did it. It’s a liberating sensation. I’m young looking for my age so I don’t think we look incongruous together, although sometimes when I see women of his age walk past us I wonder if he’s thinking about what it would be like to be with someone younger. I don’t have any children, which I think is lucky. I don’t know how children would react to their mother going out with a younger man. My friends really like Olivier. Three years on it has ceased to be about the age difference. They just accept him for the person he is. At work we are of course discreet but it’s an open secret.
‘I always fancied her but I was intimidated’ — Olivier Martin, 33
Élodie is the sexiest woman I have ever slept with. I don’t think that age has anything to do with attraction. I always fancied her but was intimidated by her. She was so elegant and self-assured.
I can’t imagine going out with a woman my age now; they seem so immature and needy. I look at friends of mine who are just starting families and think that’s great, but it’s not for me, and I really don’t want a woman who would pressure me to do that.
I sometimes worry that things will get more difficult as we get older, say in 20 years’ time when I’m middle aged and Élodie is nearly in her seventies, but it would be stupid to let something so special go just because of a vague worry about the future. Who knows what it holds anyway? My friends are very accepting; they all love Élodie. I know that my mother is disappointed. She would have liked me to have gone down a more traditional route, but she says that the main thing is that I’m happy.
Interviews by Helena Frith Powell. The names have been changed
Nathalie and Vivian
‘People have been nasty, France still has a long way to go’ — Nathalie Andréani, 45
‘People said I was a whore, that I was old, dirty, disgusting. They used really nasty terms when talking about me on social networks,” says Nathalie Andréani, after she and her boyfriend, Vivian Grimingi, were featured on a French reality show in 2014. She was 42, he 21. So are French attitudes to such relationships really changing? A generation ago fewer than one in ten couples involved an older woman and a younger man, and no ambitious politician would ever have admitted to being in such a relationship.
Now the fact that Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old possible presidential hopeful, uses his wife, who is about 20 years his senior, as a political argument shows that change is in the air. The subliminal message from the Macron camp is that their relationship underlines his willingness to dispense with convention and thus his reformist credentials.
Andréani, who owns two womenswear boutiques in Corsica, believes that attitudes in France still have a long way to go. “Here people still think that the husband must be older so that he can take charge of his wife, who must be financially dependent upon him. A lot of people posted comments on social networks to say it was a disgrace, that I should be ashamed of going out with a younger man. They just could not understand. After the show, I also had a lot of women contacting me to say they were in a relationship with a younger man but hid the fact.”
Jean-François Mignot, a demographer with the National Centre for Scientific Research, dismisses suggestions that France — or at least its male population — is becoming more tolerant. “People think that men are attracted physically to women and find it odd when a man marries an older woman. They suspect that he is interested in her money. And they think that women marry men for financial reasons and so they find it odd when a woman marries a younger man who has had less time to accumulate wealth. They suspect that she is interested only in sex.”
He says the increase in couples consisting of an older woman and a younger man has resulted from mass access to higher education. “The proportion of people meeting their partners at university is bigger and bigger, and that means that they are more or less the same age.
“If the woman is one or two years older no one notices and no one cares. The figures are significant because they mean that more women are getting degrees and more power and that couples are becoming more egalitarian.” But where the age gap is noticeable, he believes attitudes are still conservative.
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