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Review: La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life

Book by Elaine Sciolino


 

LA seduction: How the French play the game of lifeTrying to dissect the French art of seduction is a bit like running Monet’s paints through chromatography to discern their magic. But in her compelling new cultural study, New York Times Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino does a valiant job of deconstructing what she calls the “official ideology” of French society—one that animates daily interactions and world-stage diplomacy.

Exploiting the enviable access provided by her position, Sciolino plumbs the topic with forensic rigour, interviewing presidents, chefs, lingerie designers, perfumers, even her butcher. Her bid to define the elusive topic amuses some of her subjects (one man tells her Frenchmen’s self-awareness of seduction is akin to “goldfish not knowing what water is like”). But it also renders her an astute cross-cultural guide. Americans see seduction only in sexual terms, Sciolino points out, whereas the French regard it as a means to beguile, delight and persuade in every aspect of life, even as an end in itself.

Throughout, she’s a generous gossip and engaging observer, sharing that French women never parade naked in front of their husbands (it preserves mystique), it’s bad form to say “bon appétit” before eating (referring to bodily functions is gauche), and how entrenched attitudes toward femininity played out in the controversial burka ban.

The book also reveals la séduction’s grip over France’s body politic is lessening, which doesn’t bode well for Sciolino’s argument that seduction is “an essential strategy for France’s survival as a country of influence.” President Nicholas Sarkozy is a “case study in anti-seduction” and a “boor,” she writes. The sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn laid after publication also cast a shadow and raise questions Sciolino never addresses. She discusses DSK as one of France’s fabled grand séducteurs but Sciolino only flicks at the pervasive rumours that not all of his conquests were willing. Was she protecting him as a source? Adhering to tight French privacy laws? Who knows. But that’s the problem with seduction as a national “ideology”: it assumes everyone is caught up in the same thrall.

Trying to dissect the French art of seduction is a bit like running Monet’s paints through chromatography to discern their magic. But in her compelling new cultural study, New York Times Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino does a valiant job of deconstructing what she calls the “official ideology” of French society—one that animates daily interactions and world-stage diplomacy.

Exploiting the enviable access provided by her position, Sciolino plumbs the topic with forensic rigour, interviewing presidents, chefs, lingerie designers, perfumers, even her butcher. Her bid to define the elusive topic amuses some of her subjects (one man tells her Frenchmen’s self-awareness of seduction is akin to “goldfish not knowing what water is like”). But it also renders her an astute cross-cultural guide. Americans see seduction only in sexual terms, Sciolino points out, whereas the French regard it as a means to beguile, delight and persuade in every aspect of life, even as an end in itself.

Throughout, she’s a generous gossip and engaging observer, sharing that French women never parade naked in front of their husbands (it preserves mystique), it’s bad form to say “bon appétit” before eating (referring to bodily functions is gauche), and how entrenched  attitudes toward femininity played out in the controversial burka ban.

The book also reveals la séduction’s grip over France’s body politic is lessening, which doesn’t bode well for Sciolino’s argument that seduction is “an essential strategy for France’s survival as a country of influence.” President Nicholas Sarkozy is a “case study in anti-seduction” and a “boor,” she writes. The sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn laid after publication also cast a shadow and raise questions Sciolino never addresses. She discusses DSK as one of France’s fabled grand séducteurs but Sciolino only flicks at the pervasive rumours that not all of his conquests were willing. Was she protecting him as a source? Adhering to tight French privacy laws? Who knows. But that’s the problem with seduction as a national “ideology”: it assumes everyone is caught up in the same thrall.


 

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