Seduced by the idea of seduction? Love Intelligence weighs in on how ‘The French Play the Game of Life’
When you think ‘seduction’, you may think romance, sophistication, sexuality, perhaps manipulation…all themes Elaine Sciolino treats in her recent work, ‘La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life’. The book is surely a fun look at her take on French society, (with a few hiccups here and there). However, though she sees seduction at every turn, this is not a book that will help you succeed in your love life! The Love Intelligence method is more than a survey of behavior, French or otherwise – it’s a practical guide to help singles or couples find fulfillment in love, an approach that was created in the heart of the very Parisian culture Sciolino set out to study! So, if you want an entertaining - and at times contentious -book to read over the summer holidays, check out ‘La Seduction’. For a hands-on guide to finding and ‘seducing’ your own real love, read the 5 Love Intelligence manuals written by Florence Escaravage – and see how Florence’s explanation of seduction can turn your love life around.
Ms. Sciolino delighted many of her Yankee readers with her titillating work, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life. The charming (trite?) inclusion of one self-explanatory French word in the otherwise English title sets the tone for the book: France as a mystery to be lasciviously laid bare for an American audience enamored of this far-flung nation. ‘A stranger in a strange land’ herself, the American Sciolino uses her contacts as a former New York Times writer in Paris to conduct high-profile interviews to provide her readers with ‘the facts’, straight from the source.
What is Ms. Sciolino’s theory? Not one we haven’t heard before, in various guises: the abstract notion of ‘séduction’, whether in the arena of sex, politics, or a myriad of possible sensual experiences – food, perfume, art – underpins the decisions and actions of every true French man or woman. It’s their guiding force, their basic principle, or, as Sciolino would say, their raison d’être.
There’s no doubt that this idea is well-embedded in the American vision of what it means to be French. How many times in books and films have we come across the seductive French character with their je ne sais quoi, their art de vivre, their Hermès scarf and their indescribable charm? It’s no surprise, then, that the idea that French politicians seduce their dinner guests, that aesthetic pleasure is as necessary as air, and that seducing can be applied in almost any context, is an idea that sells well in the States.
Critics, however, couldn’t help but point out that Sciolino’s thesis is drawn with such broad brushstrokes (French impressionist brush strokes, should we say?) that it ends up losing its cogency, though we can still see the cliché peeking through. The idea that seduction has anything to do with smoothing over the Nazi takeover of France, for example, could ruffle a few feathers. Idem for the idea that, “so many French citizens with ethnic Arab and African roots feel alienated from the country's history. They don't relate to the romantic storyline.”  The unfortunate arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn after the book’s publication also brought to light one of the thorns in the side of the ‘French-as-seducers’ theory – namely that the idea of seduction has been used as a smokescreen for harassment. In reference to an episode of backside-groping detailed in La Seduction, New York Times writer Stephen Clarke comments, “the overriding impression created by this book is that if the researcher had protested, she would have been failing to understand the sophisticated codes of la séduction, objecting to a noble French tradition and maybe even missing out on some fun. French men, the implication is, are like that, and are all the more charming for it.”
And what of the wives of these debonair debauchers? In France, we hear, women see extramarital affairs – at least the high-octane ones – as ‘just the way it is’, and tolerate it. We can almost see them through Sciolino’s eyes, sitting elegantly on some Parisian terrace, sipping rosé and smoking away their husbands’ indiscretions. American women, we are told, view infidelity as a ‘sin’. While ‘Stephanie’ lives under the influence of the mundane, Puritan, Anglo-Saxon zeitgeist, and thus abhors adultery for its immorality,Stéphanie accepts the concept because seduction, as the summum bonum of French society, trumps fidelity as a principle.
The ‘seductive’ Frenchman, furthermore, has no more depth than the Veuve Clicquot-sipping, Gautier-wearing Hollywood clichés. Clarke continues that the book “perpetuates the old notion that everyone in France dresses in Dior, drinks Champagne for breakfast and discusses amour 24 hours a day, whereas in fact far more Français wear jeans, munch sandwiches and converse about how they’d like to strangle their bosses or their clients.” To which he appropriately adds, “Which doesn’t make them any less French.”
One note in the book that does ring true, however, is a purely semantic one: there is a definite difference between the use of the Gallic word ‘séduction’ and the Anglo ‘seduction’. Clarke clarifies “…we shouldn’t confine the term la séduction to its English sense of schmoozing a person in order to get her into bed. The French word can be applied to anything that tickles your senses, be it chocolate, perfume or even a car. In French you can be seduced by a cheese.” Good advice to for Beginners French 101.
So what of Sciolino’s enchanting proposal? Does the difference in the word ‘seduction’ really mean a complete difference in mentality and values between the French and the Americans? Does France really run on seduction, and America on bibles and pragmatism? Do French women really accept their husbands’ extramarital adventures in the name of grand principles? Is the art of seduction really France’s defining characteristic? Or has Sciolino only been carried away on the winds of hearsay, bewitched by a cliché, an illusion that’s claimed the hearts of many a vacationer to the French Riviera, listener of Piaf, and drinker of Bordeaux – the fantasy of France’s seductive power?