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‘I realised how prudish America was when I came to France’ – Parisians tell their stories of multiple loves

In the city of romance, a special Paris café dedicated to polyamory - the practice of having more than one significant other - gathers dozens of people every month. An English speaking group will open in March.

'I realised how prudish America was when I came to France' - Parisians tell their stories of multiple loves
Is three necessarily a crowd? Photo: Ingri Bergo

Alexandra moved from Washington DC to Paris “for love” more than 20 years ago. Twenty-five years and three children later she and her husband were “still happily married.” As veterans of monogamy, they decided to open up their relationship to include a third person.

“I was skeptical at first, but my daughters talked me into it,” Alexandra said.

'It' was polyamory, a concept she first learned about through her two daughters, 24 and 20, who were both living polyamorous lifestyles with multiple partners. 

Deciding that she wanted to learn more about the concept, she had come to attend Café Poly, a monthly salon-style event that is held in a traditional looking French bar every last Tuesday of the month. Alexandra was not the only first time visitor on that January evening.

“I see many new faces today,” Jena, one of the organisers, said as she scanned the crowd.

The room was packed. Around fifty people sat around, sipping wine. Latecomers had to ask for extra chairs to be brought in. 

Since its establishment in 2009, the crowd turning up to the café has grown from a core of about 10 people to several dozens every month. 

Most of the people looked young, somewhere between their late 20s and early 30s, but there were several who looked like they were in their 50s and 60s.

“Remember, this is not a place for pick-ups,” Jena said, as she laid out the ground rules.

“This is a place to discuss polyamory and how it is to live as polyamorous couples.”

READ ALSO What French women are looking for in a lover

Some of the people in the room looked slightly nervous, others were eagerly chatting with those around them. 

A box was passed around the room for everyone to write questions that the organisers would read out loud and answer (“for shy people to be able to ask anything they want,” one of the organisers said). 

“Can I love someone and be polyamoric with someone else?” 

Jena smiled slightly as she read the question out loud.

“Well, that’s kind of the idea of polyamory, isn’t it,” she said.

‘Poly' means plural in ancient Greek, and 'amor' is Latin for love, so polyamory is love for several people.

“Society always pins us as 'either or',” Jena said.

“Either you are in a serious relationship, or you’re looking for a quick lay. We need to break up those definitions. There is no single definition of polyamory, or about love.”

A person who is polyamorous is committed to the idea that love is not exclusive, in the sense that it is not necessarily reserved for one partner.

Polyamorous love can be shared evenly between several partners or dosed out between one primary partner and other, looser acquaintances. 

Jena has three partners, lives with two of them and brings all three home to her family for Christmas. 

“As soon as my family accepted the idea that this was not a plan cul (a fling), it worked out fine,” she said.

A triad is like a couple, but with three people instead of two. Photo: Ingri Bergo

Jena went through more questions. Some were technical, inquiring about the idea of polyamory itself (‘can I be polyamourous and jealous?’, the answer was yes). Others were more specific, based on personal experiences. Some asked for advice on how to be polyamorous in a monogamous society. 

“After a decade of homophobia, I discovered polyphobia,” one man said. 

Some had found it harder to come out as polyamorous than as gay or transgender. 

READ ALSO: 'Frenchmen aren't that great in bed' – Five French dating myths exploded

Being polyamorous is not easy even in open minded Paris. But it might be easier there than in other countries, like in the United States. 

“I realised how prudish America is when I came to France,” Alexandra said.

Raised in Washington DC, a city she said was open minded yet uptight, Alexandra had integrated the American way of love. In the US, monogamous love is firmly established as the norm – perhaps even more so than in France.

Polyamory, therefore, did not come naturally to her.

“I was reluctant at first, I didn’t understand the concept. But when my daughters explained it to me it made so much sense,” Alexandra said.

“It’s about building something with another person. I am not interested in libertinage and all that, which is just for the sex.” 

During the evening she listened intently, occasionally nodding when she heard something she agreed with.

“It’s just about respect. How can you assume to be everything for one person?” she said.

“It brings a lot to our relationship as well. The theory of it is very scary, what if I love another person more than I love him?” 

“But I realised that I can care for someone else and not care for him less.”

And, like love, polyamory knows no borders.

Alexandra was not the only foreigner to participate that night, and sometimes an ‘English table’ is reserved for those whose French is not fluent enough to follow the conversation.

The organisers are preparing a completely English speaking group to open on March 3rd.

Click here for a direct link to the event.


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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.”