The French Are Holier than Toi

And our love of strict manuals on life a la Parisienne says a lot about us.

By Shannon Rupp 11 Apr 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

A recent hunt for a cookbook left me with the inescapable conclusion: the French are better than vous and I.

All I wanted was an old-fashioned book of classic French cuisine that would teach my reformed vegetarian self how to cook meat in a way I might find palatable. Instead, the online shop saw fit to toss up dozens of tomes in what appears to be a booming genre: the French are holier than toi.

According to a series of books, French Women Don't Get Fat, Don't Sleep Alone, and they Don't Get Facelifts. Further, they Feel Beautiful Every Day. In Bringing Up Bebe, Pamela Druckerman tells us how "One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting." Her views are echoed by Catherine Crawford in French Twist: An American Mom's Experiment in Parisian Parenting. They both explain how the French prevent their children from terrorizing everyone in restaurants.

Now, I expect to have the French held-up as style icons, since they've had a lock on that reputation since at least the 16th century. But I confess to being surprised at seeing them viewed as model parents.

And it doesn't explain the Americans' sudden, perplexing love of all things French. "How to have French girl hair" more than one blog and magazine headline screams. Apparently they're recommending many, many styling products in order to make it suitably messy, as if you just rolled out of bed and ignored your tussled mop a la Brigitte Bardot in the 1960s. (Why not just ignore your hair then, I wonder, if that's the look you want? But I suppose that sort of view might be considered anti-fashion.)

Then there's a small army of authors devoted to teaching us all "How to dress like a French woman."

Parisian Chic, by the supernaturally beautiful Chanel model Ines de la Fressange, is a charming book of sketches and politically incorrect observations that is easily the most amusing of the lot. Now in her late 50s, she still traipses down the occasional runway, and offers all sorts of hilarious advice that sounds like it comes from etiquette books, circa 1935.

I particularly enjoyed her tips on how to avoid appearing old. "Don't dress like a teenager," she advises, "no mini-skirts, no humorous print T-shirts." In another note she observes, "No Parisian would ever dress mutton as lamb."

Maybe. But it certainly seemed to work for Tina Turner. Or Julianne Moore. Or Helen Mirren, in that now legendary red bikini.

According to La Fressange and a battalion of these how-to-be-Parisian books, the formula for chicness a la Parisienne is classic clothes with good accessories. In other words, the current French ideas on fashion and grooming all echo style advice books from the first half of the 20th century. The sort of tips that were aimed at upper-middle-class Grace Kelly types, who studied deportment at finishing schools.

I'm waiting for one of these faux French guides to advise adding white gloves to an ensemble. Mark my words: it's coming.

These manuals all advocate what is known as "good taste" in that class-based sense of the term that died out in North America some time in the 1960s, which makes this outbreak of Francophilia even more confusing. It's the antithesis of American individuality, which includes the right to be tacky in a way that old class-conscious Europe frowned on. Baseball caps at the dinner table? Black nail polish? Bring it on! Only snobs would condemn personal self-expression.

It's telling that these advice books grow increasingly conservative with each new arrival. Last fall, How to Be Parisian Wherever You Are: Love, Style, and Bad Habits debuted with a host of curious recommendations, including the downright offensive comment that a woman should always look baisable, as the French say. (Look it up. We don't use words like that on nice websites.)

When did the French become de rigueur anyway? It seems like only yesterday that the Simpsons' Scottish Groundskeeper Willy dubbed them "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Sadly, Wikipedia assures me that happened in 1995. Still, how did the Americans (and by default, Canadians who consume their media) go from despising the French to the point that purveyors of deep fried potatoes began re-naming their product freedom fries, to being enamoured of all things Gallic?

Charmed by conformity

I think there's a clue in the elitist, authoritarian tone of these advice books. The land of individuality has become charmed by the French culture of conformity because we've grown so conservative ourselves.

Political ideas aren't just about who-votes-how; they're carried more subtly by everything from fashion to pop music to television. And sometime in the mid-oughts Frenchmania invaded pop culture via fashion and décor magazines, blogs, novels, and movies. Around that time Sex and the City -- a love letter to an imaginary Manhattan and its shoe stores -- ended its six-year run (in 2004) with a series finale set in Paris. The show that began in 1998 by celebrating independent women had been altered radically. Suddenly it was a deeply conservative show about women entering the sort of committed relationships that would ultimately get them committed. (Come on: are you telling me Mr. Big didn't creep you out?)

"Well if that wasn't just the finale for Bush's America," sniffed a colleague as we caught the series ender together, and watched even the delightfully slutty Samantha partnered-up.

And in the blink of an eye, neo-conservative Francophiles were everywhere. Although kudos to the English: they were always skeptical. A 2007 Telegraph article listed "30 reasons why we hate the French" starting with number one, Napoleon.

Despite the Telegraph pointing out French flaws -- they're rude, they like poodles, and they don't pick-up after their yappy little dogs -- the paper later reported that France recorded more visitors than any other destination in 2013. An astonishing 84 million. (The U.S. placed second with 69 million visitors.)

Clearly, all those how-to-be-French guides have sent many, many of us to study them in situ.

Naturally people who have lived in Paris -- well, the ones who aren't trying to sell us books -- insist manuals are all so much nonsense. French women as a group, they assure us, are no more sophisticated than the fashionistas of any other major city that attracts the wealthy and celebrated.

But I think that misses what makes these books so fascinating: they emphasize a downright fascist enthusiasm for behaving according to arbitrary edicts set by some supposed authority. Their popularity says a lot about the people who read them and how they're longing for some charismatic leader to tell them what to do.

La Fressange, for example, has all sorts of rules including an inexplicable prejudice against backpacks, bright colours, and any garment that might be considered "fun" -- no Hello Kitty pajamas for you, my friend.

"Aging isn't just about what you wear," La Fressange warns. "Declaring that Twitter is stupid, you don't know how to use an MP3 player, and the iPad leaves you cold, spells 'instant Oldie'… beware."

For the record, Twitter is stupid. And tedious. And I say that as someone who has used it since 2007 and is anything but old. I'd happily give up most social media if only I could, because it's a time-suck that doesn't reward me anywhere near as well as a book. Then again, Twitter can be used in particular ways that make it useful, and talking about this strikes me as a conversation worth having.

So I suspect what the grand French dame is really saying is that one had best not have any sort of opinions that distinguish one from the consuming masses, particularly not if one is a woman.

Of course, I found no comparable guides for men, although the odd blog post touches on how to dress like a Parisian man. (Please don't.) Not surprising, I suppose. Can you imagine any North American man picking up a $30 deportment manual that teaches him how to conform to some elitist ideal? Well, not unless he's the personification of Jay Gatsby or the talented Mr. Ripley.

So while I have no desire to acquire French bed-head or their conservative views on gender relations, I do still fancy their food. I asked a friend in her 80s which French cookbooks she would recommend for meat dishes, since she learned to cook long before vegetarianism became fashionable.

"Here," she said, handing me a vintage copy of that American classic, The Joy of Cooking. "You don’t want to attempt French cooking -- there are way too many rules."

I get that now. But why couldn't she have warned me before I began reading about how to Frenchify myself with white jeans and trench coats?

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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