‘Something sacred’ – how the French really talk about love

France is often thought of as the home of romance, but is it really all hearts and flowers? French-American writer Stefania Rousselle took a road trip around France to find out how the French really see love.

'Something sacred' - how the French really talk about love
French American writer took pictures of all the couples she talked to. All photos: Stefania Rouselle

The road trip – begun in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris terror attacks when she was feeling depressed by the hatred and violence in the world – saw her speaking to, and staying in the homes of, dozens of ordinary men and women the length and breadth of France.

She said: “I think some people have a romanticised idea of what Love is in France. That French Love is this sort of Holy Grail. That it is perfect, romantic, and eternal. But it is not. It never was, and it never will be. 

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Patrick Celard, 53, stay-at-home dad, and Emmanuelle Lemée, 44, timber negotiator

“French people are scraping to get by – to pay their mortgages and to buy food, just like you.

“They are extremely complex beings, just like you. And the same goes with love – the French have the same fears and the same doubts about their ability to love and be loved. Again, just like you. They were brutally honest. There was no pathos. 

“Take Rolande, who fell in love again at 70; take Arlette, who has been with her husband for 17 years; take Jean-Luc, whose girlfriend just moved in with him. These stories all highlight the beauty, comfort, and allure of Love – but Rolande’s first husband hit her, Arlette has another man in her life, and Jean-Luc was about to open a restaurant with his girlfriend when she died of a heart attack. 

“Again and again, for each beautiful and consoling moment, there was one of ineffable sadness; of loss, rejection and despair. They were very lucid about it. 

“And I’ll always remember what Lucien said to me. He is an 82-year-old retired mason whose wife Marie-Jeanne had just died. We had lunch together in his house in the southwest of France. He had a hard time expressing his feelings about Love but he told me something that will always stay with me, because it was so mundane, so delicate:  'In the winter, we would watch television, then sit near the fire and fall asleep in our respective chairs. We were happy. I always hoped it would last forever. It didn’t.'  And then, he cried.

“Or I could tell you about Nicolas and Lucile. They are farmers in Normandy. 

“When I arrived at Nicolas and Lucile’s, I had a very bad flu. And they took me in as if I was a member of their family. Lucile gave me all kinds of natural remedies. Told me to stay with them for a couple days. She showed me how to milk her goats. Nicolas, his cows. I hung out with their children. There was so much love between them. It was so palpable that I started to feel better. 

“Nicolas told me he had turned his whole self to his family “Lucile and I have been together for twenty-four years. My guiding principle in life has been building a life with her, then with her and our children. Not building a professional career. There is something sacred.” 

“But nothing is picture perfect. He was a very timid child, afraid of showing any emotion: “I believe that we are not educated to have feelings. I was a very cheerful child, but adults took it away from me. I was very sensitive, so I closed myself off to stop suffering or feeling any emotion. It allowed me to stay among others while remaining hidden.” And his love for Lucile made him feel again. 

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Suzy Diakok, 66, retired secretary, and Dony Diakok, 69, retired mail carrier

His story was published in the French newspaper, Le Monde. And when his father read it, he called his son immediately and told him: 'Let me make up for what I did to you.' So they took a trip to Bruges in Belgium, and they made peace. 

“Nicolas and Lucile have become true friends. We spent Christmas together last year.”

As well as speaking to people about their experiences of love Stefania also took their pictures.

She said: “Most of the conversations took place at dinnertime.

“There was a lot of eating involved in this journey. A lot. It was nice to sit together around a table. So I would never take peoples’ portraits immediately after they told their stories because we were just too tired.

“Our conversations were so intense. We had puffy eyes from crying, our abs hurt from laughing, and we were full with food. It was in the morning that I usually took their portrait, right before they went to work or right before I left.”

Although the journey had a tragic origin, it ended in hope.

“Paris, November 13th, 2015, the terrorist attacks happened. 130 dead, 430 wounded. I was there to cover it. A man I knew died that night, shot down by a terrorist. And for what?

“Where was that Love? The one everyone praises? I didn’t see Love. So I told myself that I was going to go look for it. I was going to see for myself if people really cared for each other. Or if Love was just a lie. I got in my car and left, alone, on a year-long road trip across France to see if there was anything of Love to find.

“And at the end of the journey, Love won for me. And more than hope, these people brought me back to life. I saw beauty in all this disarray. And the most important thing is that I love myself again. I am happier today. I hadn’t had this feeling in a very long time.”

Author Stefania Rousselle Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov

Stefania Rousselle is a French-American journalist and documentary filmmaker. In 2016, she was part of a team of New York Times journalists who were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting for their work on the Islamic State. The interviews and photos from her journey are published in a book, Amour: How the French Talk about Love, is released on January 21st – order it here





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IN PICTURES: 7 of the French government’s sexiest public health adverts

An advertising campaign aimed at convincing young people to get the Covid vaccine has attracted international attention, but it’s not the first time that French authorities have sexed up their public health messaging.

IN PICTURES: 7 of the French government's sexiest public health adverts
Image: AIDES.

It’s an international cliché that France is the land of l’amour – or at least the land of le sexe – and that reputation does seem to be justified, given how often French public health bodies have turned to sex in an attempt to get their message across.

From the suggestive to the downright scandalous, here are seven examples of health campaigns which relied on that oh so French fondness for romance.

Get vaccinated, get laid

The Covid campaign in question was created by regional health authorities in the southern Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur region.

The poster which has got people hot under the collar features two very attractive and very French-looking people kissing, seemingly in the back of a cab after a night on the town. “Yes, the vaccine can have desirable effects,” it says.

The campaign has proved so popular that it will soon be expanded.

Promoting road safety

Earlier this year, the French Road Safety Delegation released a video ahead of Valentine’s Day, which showed a couple sharing an intimate moment in the bedroom.

The full 30-second video featured the slogan, “Life is better than one last drink for the road”.

Another image of two people kissing, seemingly without clothes, included the line, “Life, love. On the road, don’t forget what truly matters.”

Fight against HIV/AIDS

While the link between road safety and sex isn’t immediately obvious, less surprising are the references to intimacy in the health ministry’s HIV awareness campaign from 2016.

Each of the different posters shows two men embracing. Straplines include, “With a lover, with a friend, with a stranger. Situations vary, and so do the protective measures.”

The posters shocked conservative sensibilities, and several right-wing mayors asked for them to be taken down in their towns. 

HIV awareness campaign

Just a few days after the controversy over the ministry’s posters ignited, the non-profit AIDES launched its own campaign, and it didn’t hold back.

The posters showed scuba instructors, piano teachers and parachutists, all of them naked alongside their students. The slogan: “People undergoing treatment for HIV have a lot of things to pass onto us. But the AIDS virus isn’t one.”

“Even if we’ve been spreading this information since 2008, we realise that a lot of people don’t know that antiviral treatments prevent spreading,” head of AIDES Aurélien Beaucamp told France Info.

“People are still afraid of those who are HIV-positive.” 

Government-mandated pornography

It’s common for sexualised advertising campaigns to be labelled pornographic by critics, but in 1998, the French government went a step further and created actual pornography.

READ ALSO Language of love – 15 of the best romantic French phrases

The health ministry commissioned TV station Canal Plus to create five short erotic films to encourage the use of condoms and prevent the spread of HIV. The campaign featured up-and-coming directors such as Cedric Klapisch and Gaspar Noé.

“The only possible way to look at, to get people to protect themselves, is to show, show everything, show simply and without creating an obsession of the sexual act and the act of wearing a condom,” Klapisch said, according to an Associated Press story published at the time. 

You didn’t really think we’d include images of this one, did you? (OK, here’s a link for those who are curious).

A controversial anti-smoking campaign

It’s time to forget what we said about romance, because there is nothing romantic about this 2010 campaign from the Droits des Non-Fumeurs (Non-smokers’ rights) association and the BDDP & Fils communications agency.

The campaign featured several images of young people with a cigarette in their mouths, looking up at an adult man who rested his hand on their heads. The cigarette appeared to be coming out of the man’s trousers.

The slogan said, “Smoking means being a slave to tobacco”. The association said the sexual imagery was meant to get the attention of young people who were desensitised to traditional anti-smoking messages, but the posters caused outrage, with members of the government publicly criticising the choice of imagery.

Celebrating LGBTQ+ love

On the other end of the spectrum is this very romantic video from the national health agency Santé Publique France. It was released on May 17th 2021, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, and was part of a campaign against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence. It is set to Jean-Claude Pascal’s Nous les amoureux

Showing a diverse range of couples kissing, holding hands, and healing each other’s wounds, the video ends on the word play: “In the face of intolerance, it’s up to us to make the difference.”