La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life

Image of La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life
Release Date: 
June 6, 2011
Times Books
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“. . . your best bet for understanding the French would be to pick up La Séduction and read it at your leisure, preferably with a glass of wine and Debussy playing on your iPod.”

While making coffee one morning in Paris, where she now lives, journalist Elaine Sciolino noticed the slogan on the Carte Noire coffee bag. The company touted its product as “A Coffee Named Desire.” Ms. Sciolino, author of Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran and former Paris bureau chief for the New York Times, decided to investigate further the concept of seduction in French culture. After much searching on the Internet for words like séduire, séduction, and séduit, author Sciolino “concluded that seduction is an unofficial ideology, a guiding principle codified not in documents but in everyday assumptions and patterns of behavior so well established and habitual that they are automatic.”

In other words, seduction is to French culture as rugged individualism is to American culture.

No matter how many times you’ve been to France, no matter how well you think you know the French, Elaine Sciolino’s brilliant book La Séduction: How the French Play the Game of Life will teach you something new. Imagine a completely different way of viewing the snooty Parisian waiter, the taciturn farmer plowing his field, the grumpy lady selling cheese at the weekly market, and politicians called names like “le grand seducteur,” as the French media called former International Monetary Fund director Dominque Strauss-Kahn.

With La Séduction, Ms. Sciolino joins a whole parade of authors intent on explaining French culture to American tourists and others baffled by the rude treatment dished out to them by the French. Of all of the following: The French (Theodore Zeldin, 1997), Au Contraire: Figuring Out the French (Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron, 2000), Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Jean-Benoit Nadeau, 2003), and French Negotiating Behavior (Charles Cogan, 2003), La Séduction alone examines the nature of seduction and the role it plays in every aspect of French life.

“‘Seduce,’” states the author, “has a much broader meaning in French than in English, where it has a negative and exclusively sexual feel. Whereas Anglophones might use the word ‘charm’ or ‘attract’ or ‘engage’ or ‘entertain,’ the French like the word ‘seduce.’“ Seduction can be applied to everything from advertising to intellectual conversations to food and, of course, to sex.

Ms. Sciolino begins her examination of seduction with a discussion of the baisemain, or hand kissing, as practiced by mostly old-school Frenchmen. In explaining the protocol behind the hand kiss, Ms. Sciolino seduces you into wanting to read more, to find out just how the French play the seduction game, which consists of four levels, according to her: le regard (the “look”), verbal sparring, the kiss, and the deal clincher. She’s talking about sex here, yes, but the rules, she insists, apply to nearly every situation: food, fashion, politics, literature, and foreign policy all revolve around seduction.

The secret lies with the French ability to make even the most banal thing an object of beauty.

Arranged into 15 chapters sandwiched into four sections and ending with an ingenious dinner party where the well-selected guests all discuss the concept of seduction over superb food and wine, La Séduction covers the usual markers of French culture, like couture and cuisine and perfume. But a few of the most interesting passages deal with the French reaction to the niqab or total veiling practiced by a small minority of Muslim women and the place of the smile in French culture.

In an interview, François Hollande (the former head of the Socialist Party), told Ms. Sciolino that no one should feel “assaulted by the sight of another woman being imprisoned in a burqua.” The veil hides the body, which should be beautiful and, in public, available for the visual pleasure of both men and women. More telling, though, of the French opposition to the niqab can be found in a comment made by Claude Habib, specialist in 18th century literature, quoted by the author: “The veil interrupts the circulation of coquetry.”

As for the smile, in France—and particularly in Paris—people do not smile like Americans do. In fact, Ms. Sciolino suggests that, “a smile is weightier in France than in much of the rest of the world.” The French view smiling as a preliminary signal for seduction to begin. No wonder they only use it sparingly.

One of Ms. Sciolino’s interviewees, the writer Bernard-Henri Levy, likened the America way of smiling to “shaking hands,” a common act of no great importance. To discover just how strongly American culture values the smile, try going to the supermarket in a small town and not smiling at all at anyone. It’s nigh near impossible—if you’re American, that is.

In spite of the agreeable tone and readability of Ms. Sciolino’s writing, the final third of La Séduction, based on interviews with high-ranking people in French politics, doesn’t quite charm as much as the first two-thirds. But the bibliography of over 180 references offers a tremendous incentive to learn more about a country considered to be one of the most romantic and alluring in the world.

Maybe it’s a little too neat, a little too intellectually confining, but the idea of séduire as the driving force in describing French culture is really no different than characterizing American culture in terms of manifest destiny or rugged individualism.

Short of taking the French lover recommended to Ms. Sciolino by supermodel Inès de la Fressange—dubbed “la Parisienne” in a 2009 Internet poll—your best bet for understanding the French would be to pick up La Séduction and read it at your leisure, preferably with a glass of wine and Debussy playing on your iPod.