Secret Sarkozy (and Carla Bruni) Tapes Are So Bad They’re Good

Carla Bruni Sarkoy and former French preisdent Nicolas Sarkozy enjoy pretending that he is a "kept" man.

Carla Bruni Sarkoy and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy enjoy pretending that he is a “kept” man.

There are moments when France feels very small. Like in the middle of August, when almost all French people seem to have gone on vacation at the same time, as though school were on break. Or like now, when a tacky drama involving a vain former president, his supermodel wife, his reactionary former advisor, and the advisor’s estranged son, unfolds in the national spotlight, like a bad day-time melodrama with everyone gathered around the TV watching.

What happened is that on Wednesday, several French media published secret recordings of former president Sarkozy that were taped by one of his closest advisors, Patrick Buisson, without the knowledge of Sarkozy or anyone else. And these secret recordings were leaked to the media not by Buisson himself—but by an as yet undiscovered enemy of his. Whom many suspected initially was his son. Who is suing his father.

That’s just to give you a teaser. It gets worse, or better, depending on what you consider good spectacle.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his former advisor, Patrick Buisson, were close throughout the former French president's administration.

Nicolas Sarkozy and his former advisor, Patrick Buisson, were close throughout the former French president’s administration.

It is important to note that Patrick Buisson, who has been close to Sarkozy since 2005, a few years before his election, is often referred to in French media as “a shadow advisor.” A shadow adviser, not only because Buisson has never held an official position in any kind of administration, but also because of his longstanding political affiliation with the extreme right. He is, in fact, the advisor directly responsible for Sarkozy’s decision to turn his politics sharply toward a nationalist, anti-immigration right near the end of his 2012 re-election campaign. That he lost. In part, many think, because of this right-wing turn.

Implicit in the description of Buisson as “shadow” advisor is “shadowy,” as he is now regarded with some distaste by many people in Sarkozy’s own party and considered guilty of an and undue influence that was responsible for the eviction of their party from power. “Shadowy” also because this same guy who had open-door access to the Elysée palace and the French president’s thinking, and a key policy-making influence, was also described by Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and former leader of France’s extreme-right National Front party, as “an intellectual of the French right who, in the bottom of his heart, probably shares my ideas more than those of Nicolas Sarkozy.”

So that describes who the spy is in this case: pretty much your boiler-plate villain, the faux best-friend type who ends up having all sorts of skeletons in his closet and a recorder in his pocket. He even bears a striking resemblance to the famous Simpsons villain, Montgomery Burns.

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Montgomery Burns, Simpsons villain.

 

Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy villain.

Patrick Buisson, Sarkozy villain.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And what the recordings reveal is just as tawdry as the Buisson character is caricatural. President Sarkozy and his former supermodel-and-singer wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, are recorded bantering about money—all the money she’s giving up by having married the president and not being able to accept big modeling contracts anymore. “Julia Roberts 44, Sharon Stone 52, Julianne Moore 53…All of them, with these incredible contracts, right? That I can’t accept for the moment…because it isn’t proper,” she says wishfully. “Afterwards,” she goes on, “I’m going to re-sign those contracts. I’m not even going to wait that long…if I can avoid it….”

Sarkozy in the recordings confirms every received idea everyone has ever had about him since the very first minutes of his ostentatious presidency (spent on the yacht of one of France’s richest men). He jokes about how, despite all the free room and board they get—three different government apartments, he says—they still choose to rent a house (Bruni-Sarkozy’s townhouse in a private mew of Paris’s posh 16th arrondissement). He is evidently quite delighted by all this excessive spending. “In our relationship,” the former president clucks, talking about his wife, “it’s Carla who gets the bill…I’m a kept man.” He loves it.

In the recordings, Carla Bruni Sarkozy looks forwzrd to signing modellign contracts again, saying it's a shame to leave it to 22-year olds to sell eye-wrinkle cream.

In the recordings, Carla Bruni Sarkozy looks forward to signing modeling contracts again, saying it’s a shame to leave it to 22-year olds to sell eye-wrinkle cream.

The political discussions revealed are probably typical of any back-room dealings that high-placed politicians engage in when they think they’re in private. Lots of close presidential advisers accusing ministers of incompetence, lots of ingratiating themselves with the President. Except that the particular recordings published (just two, from a few days in 2011) do sound particularly full of intrigue.

They include a request from President Sarkozy on the eve of a big public address to discreetly forward his speech to the head of France’s leading right-wing newspaper, Le Figaro. Patrick Buisson himself does it. He even advises the editor-in-chief, “to get in the headline the idea of the need to adapt to circumstances. That’s the idea.” Presidents indirectly writing headlines is as pretty cliché as it gets when it comes to political manipulation. That probably wouldn’t even sustain an episode of a political drama on TV: too done, too potboiler.

But the plot gets even more hackneyed. The person initially suspected of having leaked the recordings to the media—was the villain’s son. Georges Buisson was a son who followed in papa’s footsteps. First he became a journalist like his father. And then he went to work in the network of which his father was vice-president. And then he became a partner…in his father’s political consulting business. Father-son identity nepotism self-esteem manipulation issues, right?

Right. The father-son consulting firm is audited for its overly-lucrative contracts with the Elysée, the son realizes he’s just a straw man in the company unwittingly helping the father evade taxes, the father and son come to public blows in the hallways of their TV network, and the son sues the father for mismanagement. Pretty stale, but the comments each has been tossing out about the other in the media recently are even more trite low blows.

Georges Buisson confirms his father’s recordings existed since at one point—like all sons for their technology-challenged fathers—he uploaded the recordings to Patrick Buisson’s computer. He says that his father is paranoid and obsessed with recording everything, that he has recorded things his whole life. The father probably doesn’t appreciate the son’s…openness with the media and has explained that his son is “psychologically vulnerable,” “feeble-minded”, and “manipulated by people who are after the father.”

Sigh…so seen-before, right?

Here’s wishing it were just a badly-scripted melodrama that made you wonder who watches this kind of cliché crap. Except that it involves France’s former president and the man allegedly responsible for much of the country’s policy for five years. It’s a badly-scripted melodrama that has no place in public life and yet is the reflection of a very recent period of French public life when politics and media and money were all mixed up, and bad friends who turn out to be villains had a lot of influence.

Here’s wishing France weren’t so small.

Why Another French–Youth–Revolution is Coming Up

Could May 2014 look like Mai '68?

Could May 2014 look like Mai ’68?

A big survey of French youth came out this week and France has declared, yet again, that it is very worried about its young people. I have written about it here before and, besides, what country isn’t worried about its 25 and unders, right? It’s been a long global recession, and all over the world, there’s been talk of a lost generation, of whole decades’ worth of kids without futures.

But France has had problems with its youth before. It was called May ’68—you’ve probably heard of it—and it both terrified and totally revolutionized French society. And this week, for the first time since France has been officially deeply concerned about its youth in this time of crisis, the word “revolution” is on people’s lips again.

“The self-portrait is dark”…“It’s a generation that’s been sacrificed, scorned, downgraded, that’s been denied a fair shot by society and the professional world, and that faced with so much frustration, could explode.”

Those are just a few of the assessments of a large-scale survey of 18 to 34-year-olds done last fall in a partnership between some of France’s leading media (the newspaper Le Monde, the public TV consortium France Télévisions, the radio station Europe 1). The first results, focusing on youths under 25, came out this week, headlined with some pretty depressing numbers. It turns out that not only do 45% of France’s kids think they will be worse off than their parents, but 43% think their own children will be worse off than they. Also, over a third of youths think they won’t ever know anything but economic crisis throughout their lives.

False promises, say French youth, who don't actually believe they are guaranteed any opportunities up ahead.

False promises, say French youth, who don’t actually believe they are guaranteed any opportunities up ahead.

French youth, it seems, is totally exploding the French barometer of pessimism. This might not seem terribly unusual, since the French manner, as it tends to be perceived abroad, always comes with a subtext of pessimism—this is the French way (they always rank highest in global measures of pessimism). But usually it’s not the way of 18-year-olds. Usually there is a sense of dewy expectation and hope, a notion that—as most parents, most societies, most governments tell their kids almost mechanically—you have your whole future ahead of you.

Not the French kids. They are, evidently, disgruntled, bummed out, depressed. In France, over 25% of 18 to 25-year-olds are unemployed. One in four kids is sitting by the phone feeling, to some extent, disempowered from any control of his or her own fate, which makes it hard to make plans for that whole future ahead of you. Among those who do have jobs, 60% believe they are underpaid relative to their qualifications, and nearly half think they are over-qualified for their jobs.

Is that just Generation Y entitlement? That generation of kids that expects promotions right away and is talking about work-life balance in the first five minutes of their job interviews? That generation that, allegedly, wasn’t educated in the ways of hard work and hard knocks and doesn’t really get the concept of delayed gratification?

The disaffection of French youth could lead...

The disaffection of French youth could lead…

According to this survey, no. It’s not a free-lunch generation. Among those polled, 81% say they believe strongly in the value of work. Their disgruntlement, it seems, is more complex, rooted in the very way the system is structured. It’s not that they don’t want to work hard or that they don’t appreciate the opportunities to do so—it’s that they feel that they’re denied those chances. Fully 70% of youths think that French society doesn’t give them the means to show what they’re capable of. That’s a sharp rise from 2006, when 53% thought that. The highly-selective secondary school system, the prestige-driven higher education system—61% of kids say it lacks meritocracy, that the education system doesn’t reward skill, and doesn’t give equal opportunities.

So what is to be done? The French government, for one, doesn’t really seem to know; or to want to acknowledge what this survey reveals: that the disaffection of French youth doesn’t concern just their own future, but the whole way things work in France. Like lots of other problems, the French government does seem to want to acknowledge that its youth problem is structural. And in any case, as far as the 18 to 25-year-olds are concerned, the government probably doesn’t have the solution anyway since 46% of youths don’t trust politicians at all.

The disaffection of French youth could lead to revolt.

The disaffection of French youth could lead to revolt.

According to sociologists who are interpreting the survey, the time for solutions for youths may be over, and the possibility of revolution could be real. They describe it as a pressure cooker without a release. “It’s a generation that wants entry into an ageing society,” say the sociologists. “They are enraged to be left waiting on the doorstep. They don’t want to overthrow society—there isn’t actual a conflict of values—but they are tired of hitting against closed doors and they are sending out a warning.” They see the classic ingredients for a potentially explosive social cocktail: frustration with being excluded, with a lack of social status, with unfulfilling, under-paying jobs, with having no jobs or homes at all.

Add to that mistrust of politicians and the sense of being denied the right even to hope for success in the future and you get this kind of answer from youths to the question of whether they could imagine a May ’68 type revolt now or in the near future: 61% said yes. Including more than half of those youths who do have jobs.

French youth might depressed and pessimistic, but evidently, they’re also pissed.

The French might want to have a serious think about finding a new—potentially terrifying, undoubtedly disruptive, and necessarily innovative—place for their youth today… before May 2014 rolls around.

 

 

 

 

I Am French, Therefore I Am Entitled: Yet Another Charming French Problem

"So, if they ever want to come and take away our bennies, the answer is a firm 'no'!"

“So, if they ever want to come and take away our bennies, the answer is a firm ‘no’!”

There is a word in French that is difficult to translate into English and yet it’s a word that is deeply and inextricably grafted into the DNA of French identity. That word is acquis, (pronounced “ah-key”), and it translates as benefit or gain. But in France it defines not just certain benefits—and there are lots of them!—but a certain spirit surrounding them. A determination to cling to them fiercely that, with growing frequency, defies rationality. Just as it did, once again, last week.

On Monday, France’s Court of Auditors, an official institution whose job it is to audit all public expenses, published its annual report and the star of egregious over-spending was France’s national rail company, the SNCF. The Court found that the SNCF spends too much on free and discounted ticket privileges for its employees. The report revealed that over one million people cashed in on these benefits in 2013 for a total cost of about 100 million Euros.

Which is kind of funny because the SNCF doesn’t actually have a million employees. It turns out that only 15% of those people claiming the bennies are actually active employees. The rest are just people who are—totally legally—entitled to the same benefits. The rail company gives free train tickets not only to employees and retired employees, but to their spouses or partners, their children and their step-children (until age 21), and their parents and grandparents. And the parents and grandparents of the employee’s spouse. Oh, it should be noted that the kids’ free train trips are capped out at 16 a year, after which they get a discount of…90%.

Chances are, these passengers were already, for some reason or another, riding the train for free in France.

Chances are, these passengers were already, for some reason or another, riding the train for free in France.

But what’s really delectable, and very symbolic of the deep-rootedness of the culture of acquis, are all the wonderful sub-clauses and exceptions to the formal benefits policy. For example, the employees and retired employees of the SNCF are actually restricted on free tickets at peak times and they’re obliged to contribute to the reservation fee on high-speed train tickets (which can go all the way up to 13.40€ for a round-trip 1st class ticket!). Unless, of course, they choose to use one of their eight annual entitlements to be exempt from the fee!

A few more marginalia of the benefits policy includes employees’ handicapped children—they get free tickets for life. And the 3360 doctors who are employed either full-time or part-time by the SNCF are also entitled to the same benefits as actual railway employees. And suddenly it becomes a million freebies at a cost of 100 million Euros.

It’s hard not to find this entitlement scheme generous, even insanely, irrationally generous. Or just incomprehensible in 2014 when France is barely holding onto the edge of the precipice of another recession. But it’s even more irrational when you discover that it’s not the first time the Court of Auditors has rung the alarm about the SNCF benefits. It turns out it’s actually an annual ritual. Already, in 2010, the Court had suggested—cautiously, timidly—that perhaps, “without calling into question these benefits, one could wonder if it is justified that they be so widely and liberally distributed.” The Court had requested that the benefits policy be reformed—but then gave up.

Over one million people took advantage of free SNCF train tickets.

Over one million people took advantage of free SNCF train tickets.

And here’s why: “This entitlements subject is so sensitive,” said the Court, “that it halts any attempt at simplification and has dissuaded until now any attempt to rethink and modernize a policy that is 75 years old.” Because to say that the French are fiercely attached to their benefits underestimates the absolute sense of entitlement that they feel about them. Even the highest audit institution in he country is loathe to go down that road, totally befuddled about how to get out of an impasse that’s indirectly costing taxpayers a ton. (You can imagine the SNCF is not the only public company sinking millions into bennies it doesn’t know how to stop paying. It’s just the only one I’m writing about today!)

The French cling to their entitlements with a determination that goes beyond any actual objective need or material justification. It’s as though the mere act of giving something up, of conceding something even in the context of a rational negotiation aimed at a greater good, aimed at assuring the sustainability of, well, everything else—were tantamount to some kind of annihilation. I am French therefore I am entitled (insert head in sand).

The replies of the union leaders to the Court of Auditors’ findings this year is revealing. “We’re not worried, because the SNCF has clearly stated that it did not wish to cut these benefits, which are contractually guaranteed,” said Thierry Marty, one of the union leaders, broadcasting his undeterred confidence in the sacrosanct right to these entitlements. Interestingly, he also added that the benefits “are a very strong symbol of railway culture”: entitlements are part of their identity, part of who they are—at whatever the cost, evidently.

And so yet another year, yet another Court of Auditors’ report denouncing massive over-spending on wonderfully or grotesquely—depending on your point of view—generous benefits.

My point of view is that it shouldn’t be too hard to get in on it. Having a conversation and, say, a communion of spirit with the 21-year-old son of a retired railway employee ought to do it, right? Or perhaps running errands for the grandmother of the ex-wife of a current employee…

All Hail Zee Burger: the Culture Wars Are Over Between France and the U.S.

A burger from popular Paris burger joint, Blend. (Credit: Paris by Mouth)

A burger from popular Paris burger joint, Blend. (Credit: Paris by Mouth, where they also review Blend.)

Breaking news: the French ate nearly one billion burgers in one year. The numbers are in for 2013 and it’s not looking good for the ham sandwich lobby. Last year the French consumed over 970 million hamburgers. But no one’s freaking out. That’s the breaking news part. But as usual, because this is France, it’s about a lot more than food.

The numbers come from a study conducted by Gira conseil, for the European Sandwich and Snack Show, and it comes out to about 14 burgers per person per year. Which is a lot, but which isn’t nearly as impressive as the number of burgers eaten compared to the number of classic baguette sandwiches consumed. Just a few years ago, in 2009, burger sales accounted for just one in eight baguette sandwiches eaten. Last year, the French ate a burger for every two baguette sandwiches consumed (and burgers accounted for fully half of all sandwich income).

The French are now openly indulging in what they’ve secretly inhaled for years: fast food. France has always been a big market for McDonald’s. In terms of numbers of restaurants, it’s the 6th biggest market in the world and the second in Europe, after Germany (and ahead of the UK, where you might have imagined a solid Anglo-Saxon appetite for beef patties). Burger King came back into the French market just a few months ago after having called it quits and pulling out in 1997. They reopened in central Paris to long lines and lots of excitement. Yes, this is the effect of the Whopper in Paris (I don’t even know how to say “flame-broiled” in French, but evidently they like the way it tastes).

 

So who cares? Remember in France, it’s never just about food. It’s a massive bulldozer of a symbol when the burger, the most symbolic incarnation of the United States—and everything that the French both love and deride about the US—upstages the ham baguette sandwhich, the quintessential emblem of the Frenchest of French lunches (it still is France’s favourite lunch, representing 58% of all sandwiches consumed). Normally, this ought to worry the French, it ought to prompt protectionist legislation, civic activism, a campaign to defend the national gastronomic patrimony besieged by the steamroller of consumerist globalization (not unlike the way legislators and activists defend the French language from the invasion of English, which I wrote about last year).

The French ham baguette sandwich or jambon beurre. Important cultural patrimony.

The French ham baguette sandwich or jambon beurre. Important cultural patrimony.

It’s all the more surprising that it’s not prompted the usual soul-searching—what’s become of French values and French identity?—because until very recently the French still were defensive about their jambon beurre (that’s the name of the ham baguette sandwich, also called the Parisien, which consists of a few slices of cooked ham wedged inside half a buttered baguette). When these same numbers came out comparing jambon beurre to burger consumption in 2009, headlines were triumphant, even triumphalist, with that little tone of superiority that always gives away the true complex of inferiority quietly gnawing away at French self-esteem: “In France, the Jambon Beurre Knocks Out the Hamburger!” At the time, for every one hamburger consumed in France, there were eight sandwiches eaten. Take zat.

To understand the symbolic importance of the jambon beurre it’s important to know that the ham on buttered baguette sandwich is so widely and commonly consumed in France, they even talk about the jambon beurre index. It’s the French equivalent of the Big Mac index, a concept created by The Economist magazine in 1986 as a way to compare purchasing power all over the world (For example, the average price of a Big Mac in the U.S. in January was $4.62; in China it was only $2.74). The jambon beurre is as intensely local as the Big Mac is global, and the jambon beurre index can tell you how much further your Euro will go in different regions of France.

In case you’re wondering, you get the most ham sandwich for your money in the small town of Douai, in the chilly northernmost region of Nord-Pas de Calais, where ham and butter on baguette costs, on average, 2.22€, compared to Paris’s 3.29€. The most recent jambon beurre index also showed that the price of the sandwich is going up, and at a faster rate than other lunch foods.

Douai, in the north. Home of the cheapest ham sandwich in France.

Douai, in the north. Home of the cheapest ham sandwich in France.

But nobody seems all that worried that the French are eating fewer, more expensive jambon beurres. Instead, new hamburger restaurants are opening all the time, new burger blogs are being launched, everyone is trading names of new burger places and high-end hipster burger trucks. “American”-themed restaurants, like Lefty and Razowski’s, are also in fashion, featuring many (or mostly) burgers. American food has become cool. Or rather it’s become cool to openly like it (as opposed to openly disparaging and secretly loving it).

It’s not a new trend: you have to have been living under a vegan rock not to have noticed that, in Paris, over the past few years the burger—and eating and knowing about burgers—has become a full-on hipster trend that’s now migrated into the mainstream. Culminating in this recent news of 2013 as the banner year of French burger consumption.

But here’s the key adjective in the previous sentence: French burger consumption. The burger may be American, but the French eat it their way, and only 38% of those nearly billion burgers are actually fast food joint burgers. The rest of the burgers are being consumed in proper sit-down restaurants and probably, as the French are so quaintly wont to do, with a knife and fork. And prepared with ingredients like Normandy beef and unpasteurized blue cheese from the Auvergne region in central France or fondue cheese from the Alpine Savoie region.

In brief, all this means the French are…relaxing. It’s no longer automatically degrading and totally unallowable to like hamburgers, formerly the symbol of all that was wrong about America and better about France. The French are globalizing, and, in this case, without any recriminations or spasms of doubt. They’re cool with hamburgers now; no furtiveness or derision. Just pleasure.

Juicy Lucy: a molten cheese center.

Juicy Lucy: a molten cheese center.

There are undoubtedly limits. Chances are this best-selling accessory in the US, a kitchen utensil that allows you to stuff burgers with shredded cheese, inspired by a cheeseburger called Juicy Lucy allegedly invented in a bar in Minneapolis, will undoubtedly and thankfully never ever make it to France (Note: it’s is a cheeseburger that has the cheese inside the meat patty rather than on top, resulting in a molten core of cheese within the patty.) Because that actually would be the end of everything.

Meanwhile, at least when it comes to zee burger vs. zee jambon beurre, the culture wars are over.

How Gender Studies Made Headlines in France and Why It’s Scary

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Opponents in France to “gender studies” claim that it’s about erasing the differences between sexes.

The French have always used the term “political correctness” with playful derision. They see it as a consummately American aberration that they only ever refer to with gentle sarcasm. But this past week, a notion that had long been relegated to that same category of American earnestness, “gender studies,” has suddenly and bizarrely been propelled into the headlines. And how the concept of “gender studies” has ignited a full-blown political affair in France reveals something more—and more disturbing—than just a little friendly condescension.

The whole affair began to bubble up last week when it was reported that the parents of children in several hundred elementary and pre-schools scattered across France had kept their children home from school after receiving text messages with diverse warnings. The messages said that because their schools had embraced “gender studies” they would be teaching “boys to become girls,” or they would be teaching sex education to pre-schoolers. The text messages called for parents to keep their children out of class for a day. The rumors then went rapidly viral across social media and via emails.

Most of the parents targeted were Muslim. In a Strasbourg suburb with a a high Muslim population, the director of one elementary school told the media that he had to field anxious questions from many mothers including whether it was true that Jews would be coming to the school to teach their children how to masturbate. This was one of many rumors that rapidly inflamed the now full-on controversy about so-called “gender studies” being taught to kids.

It turns out the person spearheading this formal movement to boycott schools is Farida Belghoul, a former civil rights activist who had been a high-profile leader in the 1980s for the rights of France’s North African immigrants. Since then, she has veered away from the extreme left and is now close to the organization of an essayist from France’s anti-Semitic extreme right, Alain Soral, who is a vocal supporter of the now infamous French comedian, Dieudonné, whose shows were banned recently because of their anti-Semitism. Which gives a sense of where, in part, the strange resurrection of “gender studies” is coming from.

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Farida Belghoul, leader of the boycotting school movement.

Belghoul’s “School Boycott Day” movement targets an experimental school curriculum called The ABCD’s of Equality, launched by the Hollande government in September and currently being tested in 275 schools in France. The curriculum’s stated purpose is to combat inequality between men and women by targeting, early on, the underlying gender stereotypes. Belghoul and other right-wing groups are claiming that this initiative is a form of “gender studies.”

And they claim that the objective at the heart of gender studies—and of this ABCD curriculum—is to deny the difference between men and women, to encourage children to become transsexuals and homosexuals, and to destroy the heterosexual model of the family. (Obviously none of which—as you know if you went to college in the Unites States in the 1990s or after, when gender studies were becoming integrated into mainstream academic departments everywhere—is true.) They claim that the government, through public education and the ABCD’s, is trying to inculcate this anti-family ideology and LGBT propaganda as of the youngest age possible.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Universities and colleges over the United States have academic departments dedicated to gender studies.

Muslim parents were the majority of those who kept their kids out of school last week, but they weren’t alone in expressing their objections to the ABCD program. If last week’s rumors about the government’s so-called “gender studies” curriculum got so extreme—and got so much traction—it’s because they were being heard in a lot of different places across the conservative and right-wing spectrum, including, with a resounding echo, conservative Catholics. Many Catholic organizations and family values groups organized seminars last week to “help” parents figure out how to deal with the situation and not allow their children’s identities to be hijacked.

The controversy couldn’t have come at a more strategic time for France’s conservative Catholic activists—and they have embraced it greedily. They had somewhat receded from public view after the defeat of last year’s widely-followed movement objecting to gay marriage. The law legalizing gay marriage and adoption was passed last May, but the opposition movement, called La Manif Pour Tous (Protest For Everyone) in opposition to the pro-gay marriage Mariage Pour Tous (Marriage for All) and largely coordinated by conservative Catholics, promised not to go away. Just last Sunday they helped organize a “March of Anger” protesting François Hollande’s socialist government, to be followed today by an ever bigger protest targeting the government’s family policies.

The same government that, in the past week, has had to deflect this rumor-fed controversy surrounding its alleged intentions to brainwash kids, eliminate sex differences, and encourage early-onset sexuality (one rumor even claimed that children would be given masturbation demonstrations with wooden penises and stuffed toy vaginas). This was, for the Manif Pour Tous activists, a controversy sent from heaven.

One of the most immediate results is that the numbers of expected participants in today’s march has jumped considerably including, it is predicted, a record number of Muslims. One organizer in the provinces, when asked about the effect of the gender studies rumor claimed that signups for the march increased 30% overnight and that as of early last week, Imams had started contacting him asking for flyers to hand out and pledging mobilization.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered  high muslim participation.

A picture from the protest on Sunday, February 2, which garnered high muslim participation.

Aside from giving the movement renewed momentum and new participants, it also gave them a strategic new name. As of yesterday, organizers had re-baptized the target of their opposition, calling the event the “March Against Family-phobia.” That’s what all these government policies add up to: first it was gay marriage and adoption, then it was the spectre of allowing gays access to fertility treatments and IVF, and now it’s this nefarious gender studies-driven attempt to convert kids—it’s clearly a government that hates families. Who wouldn’t object to a government that hates families?

So the story of how “gender studies” not only became worth talking about again last week, but ignited a full-blown political affair in France, is also the story of how all different flavors of the extreme opposition—right-wing extremists, Muslim conservatives, anti-Semitic activists, and ultra-conservative Catholics—all decided that they had some common ground.

But it is a rumor-fed and disturbing common ground that aims at a target that doesn’t really exist (gender studies?!). Leaving its real targets—and motives—unspoken. This amalgam of disparate disgruntlement and extremist activism is reminiscent of the Tea Party in the U.S in 2009. And in fact, just this morning, the Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls made the comparison himself in an interview with the Sunday paper, Le Journal du Dimanche, calling this new extremist opposition a “Tea Party à la française,” and a “revolt of the anti’s:  anti-elite, anti-government, anti-tax, anti-Parliament, anti-journalist…But also and especially anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic.”

The JDD asked the Minister if he thinks the current climate is reminiscent of the 1930’s, and Manuel Valls said he did. I sincerely hope that analogy is going too far.

Do the French Really Believe That French Women Don’t Get Facelifts?

Lou Doillon, French actress, model and singer (and daughter of Jane Birkin and sister of Charlotte Gainsbourg) has the French thing going on.

Lou Doillon, French actress, model and singer (and daughter of Jane Birkin and sister of Charlotte Gainsbourg) has the French thing going on.

The French are waking up to the idea that Americans love them. Or, more narrowly and perhaps more accurately, that American women tend blindly to admire French women and want nothing more than to know exactly how to do things just like them. There is a whole cottage industry of French Women Do Everything Better publications, and the news about it has finally made it back to France. Where the French are, well, a little bewildered actually.

The reactions are coming out here now because of the December 24th publication of the latest book in the first and the most famous of the French Women Master Life Effortlessly franchises, engineered by Mireille Guiliano. It all started with her 2004 book, French Women Don’t Get Fat, and then went on to produce the French Women Don’t Get Fat Cookbook, then a book of French tips to happiness, another on tips to the working world, and now, nearly ten years on, this latest volume, French Women Don’t Get Facelifts.

Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don't Get Fat and lots of other books in the French Women franchise.

Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat and lots of other books in the French Women franchise.

Without going into the merits of the literature, which has already been reviewed, praised, analysed and excoriated a lot over the years, it’s still relevant to note that it’s grown into a lucrative publishing niche. Since Guiliano’s first book a decade ago, dozens more in the genre have published from Two Lipsticks and a Lover: Unlock Your Inner French Woman by Helena Frith Powell, Chic & Slim: How Those Chic French Women Eat All That Rich Food and Still Stay Slim by Anne Barone (followed by Chic and Slim Encore and Chic and Slim Toujours), to Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Secrets of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman and Why French Children Don’t Talk Back: What We Can Learn From French Parenting by Catherine Crawford. This list is not by any means comprehensive–there are actually many more in the same genre!–and many of these books made bestseller lists in the U.S. and sold millions. (Guiliano’s Facelifts was 14th on the New York Times Bestseller list just a few weeks after being published in December).

We could go on forever about why this is such a lucrative market, if it’s really true or not that French women have some kind of innate savoir-faire that makes them better and happier, and where the French Woman myth comes from anyway, because it obviously can’t be entirely true that they eat, dress, and seduce so perfectly. We could also wonder why Anglo-Saxon women are convinced enough that they get it all wrong to believe that French women get it all right.

Then again, there isn’t a publishing boom of Italian women’s lifestyle secrets, or Swedish women’s parenting strategies, or Brazilian women’s sex and relationship savvy. So evidently there is something about French women—and not just a sense of inadequacy among Anglo-Saxon women—that feeds the industry. There is clearly the very bankable perception that French women are different. And, evidently, superior.

But rather than probing the veracity of or the reasons for that perception (which I tried to do to some extent in a book a few years ago and which, as I mentioned above, countless reviews have done even better), I’m actually more interested in what it feels like to be the object of such adulation.

"The French Woman: a Star in America." Story in last week's Le Monde magazine.

“The French Woman: a Star in America.” Story in last week’s Le Monde magazine.

Judging by reactions in the media over the past few weeks (and even the past few years), American adulation mostly generates French…bewilderment. What’s all this praise about? As one story on the American show of love describes, French women are  “flattées mais lucides,” flattered but realistic. Which, arguably, is very French: dismissive of the idea of praise—it’s never good to dispense too much of that—committed to a culture of taking-things-down-a-notch.

There is also the sense that these women as described aren’t necessarily real women. They are an idea that Americans have of French women. An idea that the French reviews are all too happy to debunk, citing plastic surgery stats (France is the 9th biggest consumer in the world, ahead of Germany or Spain) or the French woman’s expanding waistline which has gained 6,7 cm since 1997. Without, however, explaining why, in 2014, French women are nonetheless incomparably slimmer and statistically have a lot more sex than American women.

"The French Woman, an American Dream." Article in an edition of the magazine Madame Figaro last summer.

“The French Woman, an American Dream.” Article in an edition of the magazine Madame Figaro last summer.

Some commentators have not deprived themselves of the small pleasure of finding all this typically American, this tendency to gush and to grasp, to want to define a pragmatic solution to everything. French parenting is just the flavour of the month, was the lucid retort to all the enthusiasm last year about Pamela’s Druckerman’s Bringing Up Bébé, when Chinese parenting was the most popular one last month. In a country with a ravenous appetite for pragmatic how-to books on how to succeed in anything. That, to be sure, is not the French way.

One article noted how this same French woman, allegedly so perfect and sure of herself, actually admires a ton of things about her American sisters: “She drools over the perfect blow-outs of American women, her chic and trendy manicures, her innate sense of hospitality, her cookies, crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside…” I’m not sure it’s entirely comparable praise—she makes a Toll House batch to die for?—but nor is praise here dispensed with the same ritual casualness.

Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. What French women admire about American women.

Crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside. What French women admire about American women.

Perhaps the most revealing reaction I read was in an article in the women’s magazine Madame Figaro, in which the author explains—with more of that same realism unmuddled by all this flattery—that actually, French women are just faking it. It’s all faux: falsely tousled sexy hair, faux flawless chic, just faking being a femme fatale. We believe, she writes, that less is more when it comes to everything. All of which creates a false sense of mystery—that les Américaines can’t get enough of.

I had always thought that Fake It Until You Make It (FIMI) was a consummately American strategy, in the most barrelling-ahead-with-a-forced-smile kind of way. When in reality FIMI might be the secret to all this best-selling French perfection. But—and here, according to my theory, lies the greatest difference between the French and the Americans—where les Américains tell you what they’re doing every step of the way, the French are quietly doing exactly the same thing and simply not talking about.

Less, it appears, really is more.