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LES ECHOS

Power And Seduction: The U.S. And France Still Worlds Apart

Just as the Dominique Strauss-Kahn storm hits, a well-timed book by an American reporter in Paris tries to make sense of the French codes of power, sex and gender. A review by Le Monde's New York correspondent.

Power And Seduction: The U.S. And France Still Worlds Apart
Corine Lesnes

NEW YORK - Transatlantic differences of opinion look far from being resolved. Accusations have been flying since the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, known as "DSK" in France: "Puritans!", "Brutes!", "Too permissive!", "Hypocrites!". French Socialists are denouncing a furious media and judicial frenzy, with veteran party stalwart Jack Lang even accusing the New York judge who kept Strauss-Kahn in prison of wanting "to make a Frenchman pay, and whatsmore a Frenchman who is well-known."

Since the arrest last Saturday of the General Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on charges of attempted rape, the DSK affair confirms the stereotypes. On the one hand, the French sensualist, forever womanizing with the tacit approval of his peers, confident in his "sophistication," as the Wall Street Journal put it mockingly. On the other, a brutal judicial system that does nothing but accuse, and sheriffs convinced they are in an episode of "Law and Order." Imagine the shock of Americans on learning that in France, there is a law against broadcasting images of a handcuffed defendant, whereas in New York, the police call the cameramen and invite them to film! For the French, it's incomprehensible that the accused has not yet had the chance to defend himself.

A book by New York Times Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino comes just in time to explain French social attitudes to Americans -- and American astonishment to the French. In La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, she investigates the depths of French society and culture. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing tried to discourage her. "I've never known an American, never, who has really understood how French society works," he warned. The French system is "impenetrable from the outside." A few pages later, we read about the former French President running his hand down the back of an assistant. When the journalist observed him doing it again, she thought she was dreaming.

Seduction is at the heart of the French spirit, Sciolino believes. "It's an unofficial ideology." By the word seduction, she means the collection of behaviors that standardize social relations, from the art of conversation to diplomacy. Since the shrinking of its empire, France has reinvented itself as a "soft power," which is nothing more than the ability to seduce and attract.

For starters, Sciolino is given a lesson in hand-kissing by Maurice Lévy, president of French advertising group Publicis, who both corrects and adds to Jacques Chirac's approach: "I mustn't touch you, but you should feel that I am rather close." Asked for her opinion, former Chanel model Inès de La Fressange suggests advising him to get a new haircut. And a lover if possible, before he gets arthritis.

French-American actress Arielle Dombasle explains: "Seduction is war." The author, who has been a war correspondent, believes she is in familiar territory. She is wrong. Showing yourself naked in front of your husband? "Never!" exclaims Dombasle, who performs at the Crazy Horse, one of Paris's racy cabarets. "If so, he'll never invite you over for lunch." For the French, nudity is not a trivial thing, she maintains. Just enter a locker room at a gym in the United States, overflowing with naked bodies, to measure the gap. French writer Chantal Thomas tells her about the art of suggestion: "It's either a miniskirt or cleavage, but never the two." The Americans have a rather different view: reveal all in the best way possible.

The journalist ends up seeing pleasure, leisure and seduction everywhere. At Evian-les-Bains, she is amazed to meet workers at a spa undergoing hydrotherapeutic treatment paid for by Social Security. On the route to Compiègne, she stops right in front of a garage called ‘Auto Seduction". She interviews the garage owner. ""Auto Prestige" was already taken," he admits. She writes that the French allow themselves pleasures and leisure activities not permitted by ‘hardworking", ‘super-capitalist" Americans.

Sciolino attempts to understand it all. Why does a French woman get dressed up just to buy a baguette at the corner bakery? The answer: "We'll never know." Why aren't French women offended when a man compliments them in public? The whistles? She is astonished by how little feminism there is, shocked that in France, a totally sexist book can be written by a foreign affairs diplomat without causing the smallest ripple of reaction. She's talking about the book by Pierre-Louis Colin, Guide des jolies femmes de Paris (Guide to the Pretty Woman of Paris), that takes stock of the legs and cleavages of Paris, neighborhood by neighborhood.

The chapter concerning seduction in public life brings together familiar elements: the mistresses of Jacques Chirac, the hidden child of François Mitterrand, the rumors about DSK. The French believe in the "right to pleasure," she says, making them tolerant of other people's behavior. Investigative reporters do not pursue politicians, and citizens do not demand embarrassing revelations. In the United States, the goal is to win with maximum efficiency. In France, she says, it is less about gratification than about desire.

Read the original article in French

photo - Kevin Dooley

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