The complex history of love, sex and the French

Does France have anything to tell the rest of us about attitudes to what is, too often, a taboo subject?

15 February 2021
Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s song 'Je t’aime ... moi non plus' was banned because of its explicit content
By Nick Inman

In 1969, the world was astonished at the sounds coming from the radio: Jane Birkin was breathing heavily, apparently on her way to ecstasy, to the accompaniment of a sensual striptease melody.

Only one country could have produced a pop record like Je t’aime… moi non plus (written by Serge Gainsbourg), which sounded like – was intended to sound like – two people making love next to an open microphone.

In many countries, the song was banned for its explicit sexual nature, which only made it more popular. Hardly anyone listened closely to the words, which are poetic and puzzling more than they are pornographic.

France has long had a reputation for leading the world in sexual liberation but the stereotypes that are heaped on it mean that the subtleties of attitudes are missed.

You could say the country has served as a safety valve for every other country’s inhibitions. For permissiveness, nudity and eroticism, this was always the place to come.

France provided Latin lovers for her and mistresses and coquettes for him

It also spawned the Marquis de Sade, and the Folies Bergère, Belle de Jour, Emmanuelle and The Story of O.

As we all know, the English language attributes the most intimate form of kiss, and the prophylactic “letter”, to the lustful French.

Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller made their reputations on their shenanigans in Paris.

Oscar Wilde took refuge here when a buttoned-up Britain cast him out as a pariah for his homosexuality.

James Joyce’s Ulysses could only be published in Paris because it was considered obscene in Britain and the US.

On a local, rural level, there seems to have been plenty of sex going on, too. The typical bal du village was only a success for many if it included a quickie in nearby bushes.

Before modern fertility treatment, it was not uncommon for a sterile husband to allow his wife to visit a neighbour in order to get pregnant.

Every small community had a character known as the fils du curé, the priest’s son.

That is all now in the past. But is France still more liberated than everywhere else or has the rest of the world caught up with it? What is the state of the country’s love life today?

Does France still have anything to teach the rest of us about intimate adult relationships?

My starting point was Nina Epton’s classic book Love and the French that attempted to pin down the nation’s desires and habits in 400 pages.

It was written in 1959, on the cusp of a decade that would shake everything up with the pill, abortion, greater leisure time, and female liberation. She quotes some of the first intimate opinion surveys which found that young people had conservative attitudes towards contraception and homosexuality – or at least said they did.

Nina Epton's Love and the French
Nina Epton's Love and the French

One problem with this whole subject is that no one can ever know what goes on behind closed doors.

Reading Epton set me thinking. If I were to write something similar today, what would I say?

The close relationship between love and sex

A recent book of photographs and stories, Stefania Rousselle’s How the French Talk about Love, attempted something similar, although it is deliberately very personal and anecdotal, rather than aiming at overarching conclusions.

However, it is a useful reminder of the close relationship between love and sex.

I decided that a good way to continue my own inquiry would be to consult my friend Arielle, a great raconteur and observer of life.

She always tells good jokes but on this topic she was very serious. “Don’t oversimplify the subject,” she warned.

“There is a fundamental difference between people who have had a religious education and those, like me, who have not.

“There are also differences between the classes; the generations; between Parisians and provincials; and between city dwellers and villagers…”

In short, any generalisation I try to make about love/sex and “the French” will have its exceptions – 60-plus million of them, if we are being honest.

But I got the impression, talking to Arielle, that sex is much more matter of fact in France than it is in Britain.

Also French people do not, on the whole, separate the physical from the emotional. Or, if they do, they are at least more honest about the difference between love and lust, and there is nothing sordid about the latter.

Physical appearance is undoubtedly more important here than on the other side of the Channel.

I’d be fearful of complimenting a British woman on her looks in case she took it the wrong way. It is as if the sexes try not to look at or pay attention to each other because the rules of engagement are no longer clear. Here, it is the opposite: people like looking at each other. On one side of the Channel, it is rude to stare, while on the other it is rude not to.

People in France are frank about love, sex and looks, and they do not necessarily fall into line with trends from abroad

Many feminists were shocked in 2018 when, at the height of the Me Too movement, 100 high-profile French women wrote an open letter to Le Monde essentially arguing that the relationship between the sexes could not be reduced to some easy formula and that men and women should be free to act as they pleased.

The women later clarified that although they supported a man’s right to “bother a woman” in the name of seduction, they were not defending blatant abuse.

No one, they said, can regulate the affairs between two people – and unless it needs to be anyone else’s business, it is no one else’s business.

In her book The Secret Life of France, Lucy Wadham gets to grips with the complexities of love and sex.

The Secret Life of France
Lucy Wadham's 'The Secret Life of France'

She concludes that “there is a climate surrounding sex in France which lends itself to a more open enjoyment of the seductive game. For that is what sex is to the French: a game – with all the artifice that the word implies…

“The driving force behind sex in France is quite simply the pursuit of pleasure. Not ecstasy, not oblivion, but pleasure”.

In my discussions with Arielle, we did get some things clear. Sex in France is not something smutty or shameful. There is no French translation for “dirty joke” told among polite people although the vulgar expression, parler cru, carries something of the same connotation.

There is much less tiptoeing around the subject, much less hypocrisy and sense of puritanical repression. Infidelity is frowned on by faithful husbands and wives, but – in a limited and specific way – it is considered understandable.

“Everyone feels the need to please someone,” explained Arielle. “It’s natural. Sex is just part of life.” I cannot help thinking here of Madame Bovary.

Although it is a 19th-century novel, it is also strikingly modern in its approach to the society-shocking behaviour of its protagonist.

Emma Bovary makes her choices and takes the tragic consequences.

Madame Bovary
Depicting Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece: Madame Bovary

Her creator, Gustave Flaubert, is unflinching in his portrayal of her calculating infidelity and he withholds judgment.

He seems to be saying: why shouldn’t she place her need for love, excitement and sensuality above her duty as a wife, if that is her nature? Coming back up to date, I wanted to know what French people think of sex scandals, of politicians disporting themselves in public, like Mitterrand maintaining a second family in secret and François Hollande visiting his girlfriend badly disguised in a motorcycle helmet.

Such things shock foreigners more than French people, Arielle told me.

“People in power – not just men – are assumed to have large sexual appetites and we appreciate their apparent powers of sexual performance.

“What we don’t like to see is a politician who is single, who doesn’t have a husband/wife or boy/girlfriend.”

There can be no firm conclusions and I am not sure that it would be easy to write a sequel to Love and the French.

Perhaps all we can say is that the tapestry is richer than the shocking highlights that have made France libidinously famous abroad.

The last word should go to Epton herself: “Love has not yet completed its course. Love has only just begun its career. It is full of exciting possibilities – only a few of them have been explored.

“Many schools have been opened to perfect the mind; why not establish one to perfect the heart? This art has been neglected.”

If the French still have anything to teach the rest of the world, particularly the Anglo Saxon countries, it may be that we should be less uptight, try to set fewer rules and barriers between the sexes, and enjoy ourselves and each other more.

Related stories

New book reignites the debate on incest taboo

Get news, views and information from France
You have 2 free subscriber articles left
Subscribe now to read unlimited articles and exclusive content
Already a subscriber? Log in now