Keith Spicer
Photo: Ilona Hurda

Keith Spicer

Les Femmes

It’s easy to peddle fantasies and fables about Parisian women. Parisiennes themselves invent them, and strive to prove them true in street, office and bedroom. Books and magazines fell forests titillating the credulous and insecure. Why do Paris women display ‘legendary’ sex-appeal? Because self-perpetuating Paris legends claim they do, and eager foreigners (include French provincial women) want to believe them. Just as they do tales of the mythical “French lover” (a fraudulent reputation, of course!).

A masterpeddler of Parisienne myths was 19th-century novelist Honoré de Balzac, a fat, smoking, coffee-swilling Class-A seducer. Presenting in April 2008 a routine section on where to meet the sexiest women in Paris, Le Nouvel Observateur weekly cited Balzac thus: “Does [the Parisienne] owe to angel or devil this undulating grace which plays beneath a swath of black silk, teasing its lace edges, spreading her balm in the air as what I would call the Parisienne’s breeze.”

With such a fevered imagination, you can find any woman breezy. (Not a bad idea?) But couldn’t you take your fever to Rome, Madrid, New York or blonde-paradise Moscow, and seek angels or devils there too? In fact, pick any small town where cheeseburgers don’t meet Spandex.

Dress standards in Paris are indeed as high as the Eiffel Tower. Unwearable haute couture creates an intimidating mystique, and fashionable oases dot the city – pricey but usually exquisite clothing to drape princess or shop-girl. Reinforcing the standards: hawk-eyed women scrutinize how other women dress and behave. And men look, stare, ogle, leer, even audibly express admiration: an awed-but-eager whisper of “ravissante!” is manna to any mannequin, especially if she’s an unofficial one, a slightly lumpy secretary or housewife strutting her stuff.

More to the point, how do Parisiennes behave? Parisian women of reasonable availability (a huge reservoir) of course respond to intelligent, tasteful and witty approaches by men. But don’t women everywhere? French women are not especially loose, except in the sense of relaxed. Relations between the sexes in Paris are deliciously natural. No gender cops here: your biggest crime is not to compliment a lady. That’s a sign of the gravest social misdemeanor -- being mal élevé (“badly brought up”), or uncultured and lacking in social graces.

Paris is a city for women who want to remember what it’s like to be a woman. Men, un-cowed by harassment paranoia, don’t fear to flirt, flatter, hug, air-kiss and, in high society, hand-kiss (usually missing the hand). French women mostly enjoy this without running to a Human Rights Commission. Work-related harassment is another kettle of bouillabaisse, especially if tied to a “couch promotion.” Then lawyers may (though rarely) enter the fray. If the harassment is mainly awkwardness or stupidity, and not job-threatening, many Parisiennes take a self-help approach: “What’s wrong with those American women,” I heard one female French manager say, “Don’t they know how to slap a man’s face?”

Les Françaises are just as guilty. No man is safe in a Paris supermarket vegetable section, never mind museums, bookstores and parks. For uptight foreigners, the first joy of Paris is just chilling out and rejoining, without stress, the ageless biological dance. Come here as political refugees… from political correctness. Once I observed to a newsstand lady that Sophia Loren, on a magazine cover, didn’t look “too bad for her age.” The kiosque lady feigned jealousy, retorting: “And what about me?”

Another time, in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I got carpet-bombed by a pigeon, from head to all points south. I went to the public facilities to clean up, and started wiping off my head and face in front of the horrified attendant – not the scowling “Madame Pipi”of legend, but Françoise, a cheery, round fifty-something. She started cleaning me off too, insisting that she wanted to help a “distinguished gentleman” (Who, me?). I tried to rebuff her, protesting that this was no job for a lady of her quality. But she persisted, all the way down. When I stopped her near a strategic place, she smiled and deadpanned: “But why do you want to deprive me?” Leaving a fat tip, I went upstairs to the buvette and returned with a blush-producing flute of champagne. Since then, Françoise and I have a bond only a Frenchwoman or a pigeon could appreciate.

In Paris as elsewhere, any man who claims he understands women is a liar, egomaniac or fool. Not or: all three. Given Latin expressiveness, generalizing about French women is especially hazardous. Are they sensual, passionate and romantic? Or flighty, brittle and neurotic? Wise, sensible and loving? Or cold, calculating and cynical? Mature, understanding and generous? Or childish, sulky and self-absorbed? Can the truth be: a bit of all of the above? Just like all human beings?<

Does personality depend on context, times or lover? Any man stupid enough to give a clear opinion unmasks himself as an idiot. And the second he pretends he knows all about women, some very ordinary female -- by design, perversity or accident -- will certify his folly. A man’s surest defense is of course to plead ignorance. Not only does this parry accusations of arrogance. It guarantees that some woman will, out of pity or contempt, decide to take him in hand to explain it all. To déniaiser him, as that charming verb implies: to “make him a little less stupid.”

Being a coward and a realist (essentially the same thing), I have no avowed opinion on women in general, or on French women in particular. That posture is not modesty. It’s self-defense. As Andy Grove of Intel (maker of those little computer chips you love) once said: “Only the paranoid survive.” And the best way to survive with women, methinks, is this: through cautious exploration, carrying a thick skin and a limitless willingness to listen.

How long should the exploration last? A lifetime, of course. Publicly, you search for the “perfect” woman – and chances are you may never find her. But to improve your odds, you can honestly claim that you need to study many women. Your journey may well be your destination. And if it proves to be only a journey, it’s no tragedy. As British Airways’s predecessor, BOAC, once proclaimed: “Getting there is half the fun!” If that sounds too frivolous, feed your friends this more noble explanation: Your risk of finding or not finding the perfect woman as akin to philosopher-mathematician Pascal’s “gamble” on the existence of God. If you die and find Him in Heaven, He’ll reward your faith. If He’s not there, it’s cost you nothing. So believe, and enjoy the search.

My oblique path to “getting there” with French women BOAC-style (at least in print!) is to study a few remarkable, though not always exemplary, ones. In following pages, several such women illustrate roughly what quite a few French women may want. Obviously, they don’t all want the same thing. Surprise! There is no typical woman, even French. These inspirational ladies are all over the map, emotionally, socially and professionally. But all demand, or demanded, two things: freedom and respect.

A good start on “understanding” women, as well as men? No Vive la différence! needed here, as the first two of our heroines show. Their examples prove again that everything in today’s France began yesterday, maybe centuries ago. So let’s choke down a bit more history. This may set the stage for some women in our times, as we move from women’s courage to boldness to flamboyance to simple confidence. Beyond that, we collide with sexuality -- in its never-stale, infinite variety of expression and impact.