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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why French women are sick of the ‘sexy French girl’ cliché

They always dress with style, they never get fat and they're super-sexy - but in fact French women are fed up with the 'French girl' stereotypes. Anne Brivet explains why.

OPINION: Why French women are sick of the 'sexy French girl' cliché
Note, this is not a typical scene in Paris. Photo: AFP

Three years ago, I spent six months in New Jersey, USA, to finish my English degree. 

As Rutgers University in New Jersey welcomes many French students each year, I expected that they would not fall for the old stereotypes. Turns out, that was pretty naive.

The number one cliché was is the supposedly highly sophisticated and sexy French woman. It began outside a club, when an American girl complimented me on my jacket.

As soon as she heard my French accent, she suggested that I could ‘’teach her how to dress with so much class’’.

French style

“There is a way that French women dress, that you can’t really emulate”, says the British model and TV presenter Alexa Chung in a video I recently came across on YouTube. In this video, released a year ago, Alexa is supposed to learn how to ‘dress the French way’ thanks to the French designer and influencer Camille Charrière.

To me, there are many problems in that video. First, the idea that there is a ‘French’ way of dressing.  

I have been to many European and non-European cities, and I’ve seen people dressed with a lot of class. So aside from being a highly subjective notion, I don’t think style is exclusively French.

Alexa’s video is an appalling catalogue of clichés. When Alexa asks her friend if she can show her “some French classics”, Camille takes out a pair of Levi jeans (not exactly French, just saying) and… Breton stripey tops. As if every French person had some in their wardrobe.

The high point is probably when Alexa puts on these clothes and says “I genuinely feel more French”. And just when I started thinking that the only way this could become a bigger cliché was adding a beret and a baguette, Alexa finds both in Camille’s apartment.  

A girl in the comments section sums it up perfectly, writing: “I’m French, I don’t dress this way. This is only about rich French girls in Paris.”

And that says it all, because Camille seems to be mixing up two very different notions: France and Paris.

READ ALSO ‘Romanticised and commodified’ – Why France is rejecting the ‘Paris woman’ cliché

The beret, one of the iconic clichés of French women’s wardrobe/Photo: Samantha Green, Unsplash

The fantasy of the parisienne

Camille doesn’t contradict the stereotype, she seems to like the idea. Even worse, she appears to believe in it, and she accentuates it by making ridiculous generalities, as if the French woman was a laboratory subject under scrutiny.

“They (French women) don’t go online and buy lots of things, they still have the act of going shopping,” assures Camille.

Really? Let me introduce you to my friends Camille – we spend a lot of money buying many things on Asos. 

She also says: “Of course French women go to the gym, but they don’t talk about it. In France, you wouldn’t go to the gym in your gym clothes.”

This is unfortunately fuelling the fantasy of the thin and athletic Parisian woman, effortlessly and mysteriously ‘perfect’ without having to take exercise.

Sorry Camille, but you are very far from the truth. Not all French women go to the gym, French women can perfectly well talk about it, and French women can wear sweatpants in the streets even if they are not one of the many joggers you will see in all French cities.

We don’t all smoke, either. Photo: Caroline Hernandez, Unsplash

Hypersexualisation

Another thing that bothers me in this video is also something that I have experienced during my semester abroad. Apparently, the French woman and by extension, the parisienne, is a sexual figure.

But this stereotype does not exclusively target women. In the Netflix Series Emily in Paris, Emily’s friend Mindy always refers to French men as “flirts”.

READ ALSO Why are the French so annoyed about Emily in Paris?

At the very beginning of the video, Alexa makes a link between her French friend’s outfit (a simple tank top) and the possibility of “getting laid”.

I’ve experienced this terrible association of ideas during my second month in New Jersey, when I had sexual propositions from four different people in the same week.

I was quite shocked, and when I talked to other foreign students about that, it appeared none of the girls had been so overtly propositioned.

I was also asked very intrusive questions about my sexual and personal life only because I was French – all questions coming from American students.  

READ ALSO ‘Please stop telling French people that we smell – we do wash every day’

Some French people are experts on wine, others prefer Bacardi and coke. Photo: AFP

Food and wine

A lighter subject, suggested with the baguette at the end of Alexa Chung’s video, is French food. French people are supposed to have delicate taste in food and in wine.

This is widely presented in Emily in Paris. Emily nearly reaches heaven when she discovers French viennoiseries. And surprise surprise, her neighbour happens to be a chef.

The cliché might be true for baguettes, but I don’t drink red wine for example. Even though wine is a real thing in France, not all French people are experts in this beverage, or even drink it.

When I was in New Jersey, Americans were comforted in their vision of French people drinking wine with the example of my friend Benoît.

He would always bring the same bottle of white wine to every party, and this is how the ‘French guy’ was spotted.

What the American students did not know, was that the wine was actually disgusting, and the reason why Benoît always drank it was not taste but the high alcohol content.

“I am always sure to end up drunk,” he told me in secret. So much for all French people sipping in a sophisticated manner and enjoying their fine vintage.

So please, next time you meet a French person, don’t assume that you know them based on the stereotypes you have heard.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.

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