An American journalist in Paris offers a serious, skeptical study of France’s quintessential “soft power.”
The art of getting results by attraction rather than coercion is a long specialty of the French, especially in terms of politics, foreign policy, language, manners, food, culture and style. New York Times Paris correspondent Sciolino (Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran, 2000, etc.) presents some of the prevailing, socially accepted uses of opération séduction (“charm offensive”) that both bemuse her sense of American pragmatism and arouse her incredulity. Men of a certain age still tender the baisemain to married women (Hillary Clinton got one from President Sarkozy), women learn from the cradle to dress provocatively (and then welcome admiring remarks from strangers) and married people routinely take lovers as part of keeping “in good health,” while France’s national symbol is a sexy, barefoot commoner named Marianne whose bodice falls half undone. French politicians cannot get elected if they can’t demonstrate a vigorous capability: Case in point, when Sarkozy’s wife of many years left him for another man, he married supermodel Carla Bruni in a hurry and found his approval ratings soar. French shamelessness extends to politicians such as former presidents Mitterand, Giscard d’Estaing and Chirac, for whom the political office was another form of seduction. French professional women do not seem to be concerned that insistent male attention would be called harassment in the United States. Ultimately, Sciolino grates at the real problem unsettling the French—i.e., their fear of declinism, or decline. Their traditional arts of seduction—slow food, lace, finely crafted luxury items, etc.—are being threatened by globalization, eliciting a heavy sense of nostalgia for the era when beauty and pleasure reigned. Moreover, French leaders like Sarkozy still embrace a “profound unity of our culture,” even though about 10 percent of France’s population is “of Arab and African origin or descent,” underscoring deep fissures in France’s sense of its own national identity.
Sciolino incorporates numerous interviews in order to preserve a shrewd, journalistic distance in this illuminating book.