There’s something unmistakably French about Carla Bruni- Sarkozy. This is a woman whose combination of beauty and business acumen made her one of the world’s 20 highest-paid models in the Nineties, whose allure won over Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, and who released three well-reviewed albums as a singer/songwriter. She’s now one half of France’s most powerful couple and – at the age of 43 – pregnant with her second child. What’s more Bruni-Sarkozy seems to effortlessly flit from one enviable role to the next, never putting a Louboutin wrong or showing the slightest sign of stress. In their first lady, France has also found its poster girl for the ultimate French superwoman; clever, cultured and chic.
For decades, if not centuries, British women have gazed enviously at their French counterparts across the Channel. It’s not just their svelte figures and chic wardrobes we covet. We envy their outlook; French women seem to enjoy a blessedly simple relationship with food, focusing on pleasure and quality instead of guilt and self-deprivation. They also give off a self-assuredness that makes imposter syndrome a rarity and a charming sense of entitlement that means a healthy work-life balance is something they achieve as opposed to something they endlessly chase.
But is this idealised vision of French womanhood just a myth? Or would we, too, appear to have it all, if we’d only been born a few hundred miles south-east? Numerous studies have placed Britain woefully low down the list of desirable places to live. Do our long working hours, high living costs and inclement weather make it impossible – or damn difficult, at least – to have it all in the way French women seem to? Perhaps something as simple as a move across the Channel could tip the balance in our favour. Do we, in fact, need to pay more attention to France’s system of social rights and benefits, their disposable income, and a state-sanctioned focus on work-life balance? To simply grasp the fact that the eternal dilemma of work versus life doesn’t seem to exist across the Channel. After all, there are good reasons why Paris seems to be positively teeming with chic career women boasting a couple of adorable children.
Motherhood is quite a different prospect in France than in Britain or the US, for starters. The French government spends €97 billion (5.1% of its gross national product; twice the European Union average) on family, childcare and maternity benefits. While in the UK women often feel like they have to make a choice between career and children, French women are encouraged – via tax benefits and childcare assistance – to become mothers. Indeed, businesswomen joke that the easiest way to cut your tax bill is to have another child. France offers all female workers a paid, job-protected maternity leave of six weeks before – and 10 weeks after the births of their first two children, extending to eight weeks prior and 18 weeks after the birth of a third child. In comparison, British mothers currently get six weeks’ leave at 90% of their usual earnings, and while they can take 33 weeks extra, this is on a weekly allowance of £124.88.
"French women are encouraged - by tax benefits and childcare assistance - to become mothers"
The French government also offers financial incentives for parents who employ a nanny to come to their own home: parents pay only the salary of the nanny, while the state pays the numerous social security charges.
Thanks to this generous policy, coupled with access to high-quality, state-run and subsidised childcare, women in France are more likely to work, even with children, than women in many other EU countries. Asked about the fact that French women have on average two babies (compared to a 1.6 EU average), former French family minister (and mother of three) Nadine Morano said, “We spend the most money and we offer good childcare, it’s that simple. Our country understood a long time ago that to reconstruct a nation you need children.”
It’s not just the careers of French mothers which are nurtured by the state; it’s their bodies, too. In the weeks after giving birth, French women are offered free perineal therapy as part of their standard post-natal care, comprising a personal trainer and electronic pulsation devices, all aimed at strengthening the vaginal wall, preventing gynecological problems, and ultimately, getting their sex lives back on track as soon as possible. So French women have a state-sponsored gynecological workout, whereas 30% of British women have urinary incontinence and only 45% of UK mothers felt they got all the help and advice they needed post-birth.
Sex is another concept upon which France has staked its claim. We’re all painfully aware of the cliche that the British are prudish while the French are gloriously liberated. “In France, there are high expectations of sex that you don’t really have in Britain or Germany,” says Anika Steinecke, a German 28-year-old graphic designer who has been living in Paris for eight years. “Sex is considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, and no selfrespecting man [in France] will get drunk before taking a woman to bed.”
A new study entitled the Study Of Sexuality In France has found that both genders in France are engaging in more frequent sex than ever before – both earlier and later into life. The French also have a reputation for being more tolerant towards no-strings sex and sexual proclivities, with an altogether more modern attitude to the realities of a 21st-century relationship. While here in the UK, we’ve adopted a culture of revealing salacious details under ‘love rat’ headlines, in France, not even a president – let alone a footballer – can shock the public. “It’s a myth that French women don’t object to being cheated on,” says 31-year-old Elodie Cordelier, a wine buyer working in Paris. “But we’d rather have a gloriously passionate romance that lasted two years than drag it into an 11-year marriage which fizzled out long ago. We’re realists.”
Perhaps as a consequence of this ‘living in the moment’ (or ‘l’air du temps’) attitude, French women have a longer sexual shelf life. In 2008, the magazine Paris Match profiled the glamorous 54-year-old French news anchor Claire Chazal and her boyfriend, Arnaud Lemaire, who is 20 years her junior (pictured above). In the accompanying feature, they pointed out that one of Chazal’s former lovers was nine years younger than her and married. “Tant pis [Too bad],” the magazine announced with French insouciance. “One either believes in love or one doesn’t.”
For many British women, sexual confidence is associated with body confidence. Something many people feel they are short on. A January 2011 survey found that among those women whose weight was judged to be just right, only 13% were happy with what they saw. Some 17% of British women of a healthy weight described themselves as ‘fat’ and almost as many said they felt ‘down’ when they looked in the mirror. In a Stylist survey in November 2010, eating unhealthily also topped British women’s lists of the things they feel guilty about, with half of British women feeling crippled by guilt four times a day. This starts at a young age: 40% of girls aged 11-15 have some guilt about what they eat and are often on diets as a result.
In contrast, Mireille Guiliano, the author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and a regular contributor to The New York Times, says, “What French women do is not about guilt or deprivation but about getting the most from the things they most enjoy. They embrace the virtues of freshness, variety, small portions, balance, and always pleasure. American friends always ask me ‘How do the French stay so slim, when they eat a few croissants for breakfast every morning?’ Of course, no French woman eats a pile of croissants every morning. Most of us have a croissant once or twice a week, on a Sunday morning or when we meet a friend. By contrast, when tourists come to France, they eat three, and wonder why they put on weight.” “What amazes me is that French women are content to leave a dish half-finished in a restaurant,” says Steinecke. “In Germany, I was brought up to finish what’s on my plate, and feel guilty leaving a chip. In France, they’ll eat half of a portion, then stop. It’s a very simple mindset, one I wish I had.”
Nor do the majority of French women put in hours at the gym. Whereas English and American women drive ourselves to the gym, French women prefer all-day movement, or what Guiliano calls “the slow burn”. “We practise it as second nature instead of attacking it like a boot camp,” she says. “Hating the gym is distinctly French.”
And French women sleep better, too. A recent survey on the lifestyle of French people reveals that “on average the French sleep nine hours a day.” Compare this to what US columnist Arianna Huffington recently referred to as the “cult of no sleep” in the UK and the US. In our fast-paced world, “sleep deprivation oneupmanship” is routine, says Huffington, asking, “Is 7.30am the new 9.30am?” In France, the high value placed on rest isn’t just a matter of bedtime; it’s a cultural leaning towards taking time to smell the roses.
"What French women do is not about guilt but about getting the most from the things they enjoy"
The French ditched the compulsory 35-hour working week in 2008 and Sunday remains sacrosanct (while the French national statistics office found workers put in an average 36.9 hours a week – fractionally more than Germany or the UK – the British work more of their spare time at weekends and during the night). France also comes fourth in Europe for paid holiday (36 days of paid leave versus our 28; Finland boasts the most with 39 days). Every August, American tourists in Paris are scandalised by the number of boulangeries which have closed while the owners decamp to the beach.
The benefits protecting the legendary French work-life balance are considered basic human rights, and there are few things as French as the concept of “rights”. It was during the French Revolution in 1789 that the concept of rights took flight. Equality, freedom from arbitrary detention, presumed innocence, religious freedom, and freedom of speech were hashed out by French revolutionaries during this tumultuous period.
And today, the French remain willing to protest, as President Sarkozy discovered to his dismay last year when he attempted to raise the age of retirement from 60 to 62. American- French author Debra Ollivier, who wrote What French Women Know says, “These strikes were less about retirement and far more about preserving an infrastructure of social benefits that are sacrosanct to the French and the bedrock of their culture. What the rest of the world consider privileges, the French consider basic human rights.”
However, before you imagine that we’d all be well-rested and enjoying a life of leisure if we hopped across the Channel, there are a few more details worth noting. It would be wrong to believe that France is an idyll for women. France ranks 46th out of 114 in the World Economic Forum’s 2010 gender equality report, far below the US, much of Europe, Kazakhstan and Jamaica. (Iceland comes top, the UK rings in at 15.) French women earn 26% less than men and among the 102 executives comprising the Executive Committee level of France’s top 10 companies, only 3% are women. This compares to the American average of 15% of executives at this level and the European average of 7%. France is today on a par with Asia, where the average is also 3%. Also on the matter of equality, while both parents have the right to take pregnancy leave until their child turns three, 97% who do so are women.
Summing the situation up, a recent survey by the US Pew Research Center revealed that 75% of French people believe that men have a better life than women, by far the highest share in any of the 22 countries polled. (In Britain, 39% of respondents think that men have it better.) French women are also the biggest consumers of antidepressants in Europe. French feminist Geneviève Fraisse told The New York Times, “French mothers have conditions women elsewhere can only dream of. But stereotypes remain very much intact.”
The issue of gender relations came to a head recently with the arrest, on rape charges, of International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who many expected to run for president of France. Fatouma Metmati, a lawyer in Paris, was quoted in the newspaper France Soir: “In France, men with power are treated favourably by our justice system, effectively given immunity, especially for crimes like these. Women raped by powerful men or police officers aren’t taken seriously. What’s happening in the US [where he is due to stand trial following an alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid in New York] with Strauss- Kahn could not have happened here.”
The case has sharpened the debate about French gender relations, characterised by a laissez-faire attitude to a long-standing male-centric bias, and a blithe acceptance of all but the most serious sexual assaults on women. Natacha Henry, a French writer says, “A lot of attitudes that elsewhere would be considered sexual harassment are seen in France as ‘Oh, he’s so keen on women.’” On 22 May this year, several hundred Parisian women marched against sexism, waving banners reading, “Take the men out of the cave.” (see picture of protests, above).
"Seventy-five per cent of French people believe that men have a better life than women"
Another worry for many French women is lack of diversity. “Sure, France is a liberal and just society,” says Steinecke. “Providing you’re white, a moderate liberal and middle class.” It’s certainly true that the authorities don’t enjoy a good reputation when it comes to people who step outside the relatively narrow confines of what a French citizen is “supposed” to be. “France by no means has a squeaky clean reputation on the human rights front,” says Kartik Raj, an Amnesty International campaigner on the EU Team. “France has a climate where police abuse can go unchecked, and police officers have de facto impunity in many cases. Victims, many of whom are French citizens from an ethnic minority or foreign nationals, are all too often left without justice. They have a right to complain, but the odds are stacked against them if they do.”
Another major strike against human rights in France is the new ban which came into force in April on wearing religious symbols in public, as is the heavy-handed police strategy at the demonstrations protesting the ban. “The ban violates the right to freedom of expression and the religion of those women who wear the burqa or the naqib in public, as an expression of their identity or belief,” says Raj. “It needs to be scrapped.”
Noémie Laurent, a 37-year-old doctor, says, “When friends in London worry about racism or marginalised communities in their city, I have to laugh out loud,” she says. “Compared to Paris, London is truly integrated, a multicultural city. I know things aren’t perfect in the UK, but believe me, they’re a lot worse here.”
Hairstylist Gia Mercier, 29, grew up in Paris, and now lives in Hackney. “I first visited London when I was 18, and thought, ‘This is what a capital should be like.’ I was blown away by how individual everyone looked – women of all shapes, sizes and colours wore whatever they wanted and nobody batted an eyelid,” she says. “I’m a curvy redhead with tattoos, and I stick out like a sore thumb in Paris. France is a country where everyone wants to look like Marion Cotillard. If you’re not a slim brunette, women look down on you; men aren’t interested.”
While we’re not about to give up our Carla admiration, it’s worth considering that while we think French women have it all, there might be a few of them gazing wistfully the other way.