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Cũ 15-03-2010, 21:10
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Why French women don’t get old


Lisa Armstrong, The Times, March 3, 2010


Relaxez-vous. This isn’t going to be another hagiography about a France that doesn’t quite exist. I lived in Paris for a year before university, and when you’re a 19-year-old woman, a less forgiving, more intrusively sexually aggressive city this side of Riyadh it is hard to contemplate. The capital of chic and gastronomie? Pas vraiment.

For years I thought that Kristin Scott Thomas’s endless championing of French flair (and her palpable disdain for the more haphazard British way) was just another expat’s cultural cringe.Yet, now that I’m (a lot) older and the intrusive sexual aggression is off chasing younger quarry, I increasingly appreciate certain aspects of French life. Yes, it can be smug and bourgeois, but if I’m honest, in small doses, these two qualities seem quite soothing in one’s 40s. Yes, it tolerates a refusal among its citizens to clean up after their horrible little rat-dogs that makes the wearing of open-toed sandals hazardous, fosters a service industry that thinks that service is a degrading mark of bondage and seems to delight in ganging up on Britain, then claiming the moral high ground.

But it thinks that Deneuve and Birkin (and that other honorary French siren, Rampling) are genuinely sexy and attractive, rather than interesting curios. And they are sexy and attractive. That’s partly because they haven’t been sidelined. Walk down a street in Paris and it quickly becomes apparent that admiring male glances aren’t just reserved for the under-35s.

Marguerite Duras wrote about ageing as an empowering process. In Colette’s 1926 novel Chéri it is the older courtesan, Lea, who demonstrates the survival instincts that Colette always associated with femininity and her younger male lover, Chéri, who goes to pieces.

Cougars? The French have been celebrating them for centuries. For this alone I love them. And the older I get, the more I love.

I said that this wouldn’t be rose tinted. So first the myths. French women en masse aren’t necessarily more stylish than those from anywhere else. Paris may still be the world’s stage (if not the cradle — that’s more likely to be London, New York, LA, Taiwan or Turkey) for fashion. But while the chic-est French women still give everyone a run for their money, personally, I think New York is home to some of the best-turned-out women in the world these days, and French women do get fat, though not at our rate.

This French reputation for respecting women d’un certain âge — and not just respecting but loving them — is more than a myth. We can begin with a roll-call of actresses: Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Isabelle Huppert, Isabelle Adjani, Emanuelle Béart, Juliette Binoche, Leslie Caron, Béatrice Dalle, Jeanne Moreau, Nathalie Roussel and Anouk Aimée, who are adored and enjoy professional lifespans far beyond those of any Hollywood actress (barring Meryl Streep).

Then there are all the fashion muses who retain their allure into their fifties and beyond — from Inès de la Fressange and Loulou de la Falaise to Carine Roitfeld.

But there are also many older French women outside the highly polished worlds of film and fashion whose lustre is not called into question as they age: whether they’re politicians such as Rachida Dati (45) or Ségolène Royal (56), writers such as Yasmin Reza (51) or Christine Orban (56) or scientists such as L’Oréal’s 54-year-old Patricia Pineau. While Rush Limbaugh (aged 59) was asking Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2008 primaries whether Americans would “want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis”, Claire Chazal, the fiftysomething French news anchor, was starring on the cover of Paris Match with her 32-year-old boyfriend.

Oh come on, we couldn’t do this without mentioning the lover. This is another myth — that French women are all busy having affairs. Statistically, they’re no more likely to have affairs than we are, but they probably are less anguished about their extramarital hobbies. In the national psyche an affair is not necessarily a cause for angst, soul-searching and divorce, but a pleasing diversion that can save a marriage. Ménage à trois is French for happy compromise. Given that sex is always going to beat crème de la mer and the gym as youthefiers, and that feeling cherished is (almost) as good as Botox, is it any wonder that age fails to wither them?

A 2004 survey by France’s regional health observatory found that just 15 per cent of French women in their fifties and 27 per cent of women in their sixties said that they hadn’t had sex in the previous 12 months. By contrast, a recent British survey showed that 34 per cent of Britons in their fifties and 54 per cent in their sixties hadn’t. The figures were similar in the US. Does anything speak more volubly about la différence between our two cultures?

Well ... perhaps the French woman’s inimitable knack of knotting a scarf. I’m not being entirely flippant — even though I hate those finickity little silk squares that the bon chic, bon genre French woman ties round her neck/handbag-straps or, if she’s really daring, slots through the loops of her jeans, they encapsulate much that is instructive about the French approach to investing in high-quality classics and then wearing them just-so.

At its worst, this adherence to the classics results in crashingly dull uniformity. But it also mitigates the kind of car-crash, mutton-dressed-as-foetus dressing that has become increasingly common this side of the Channel.

It’s no coincidence that while Britain’s forte is cheap, mass-produced trends (and our high street a desert when it comes to stylish, affordable clothes for sophisticated older women), French fashion’s gift to the world (apart from Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, who in their different ways, each codified a form of bourgeois sexuality) is a slew of mid and upper mid-priced labels such as Vanessa Bruno, Isabel Marant, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Zadig and Voltaire, Maje, Et Vous, APC, Gerard Darel, Repetto ballet shoes and (in Paris only) Heimstone and Brand Bazar, where trends are filtered through the absolutes of cut and good fabrics.

Notwithstanding the French fashion journalist’s personal commitment to all things rock chick, the average French woman follows trends more tactically and with less enthusiasm than her British counterpart.

She may not share the Italian woman’s addiction to luxury, but she knows about durability and though her pursuit of this can come across as a haughty sense of entitlement, it’s probably a product of the same clear-eyed pragmatism that makes her take affairs in her stride. Marie Antoinette was encouraged — obliged, in fact — to wear elaborate French laces and silks to show off the nation’s skills. Two centuries on, French women are, for better and worse, obsessed with quality and ruthless about getting it right.

While adherence to the classics can look dreary and staid, when they fit well and have been properly designed, modern classics such as the trench, the white shirt, the blazer, the leather jacket, jeans and the sleeveless shift dress can be less ageing than black studded leather drainpipes. French women on the whole don’t do bondage — at least not via their wardrobes.

But don’t think that they’re not engaged in strategic warfare against advancing years just as much as we are. They just do it differently. While British and American women are eternally ambivalent about cosmetic surgery (and taunted by the mainstream media for either doing too much of it or not enough) and Italian women subject themselves to criminally incompetent practitioners, French women just get (subtly) on with it. Nora Ephron’s poignant, intermittently witty collection of stories, entitled I Feel Bad About My Neck, would be inconceivable as penned by a French writer, who would simply have got hers discreetly nipped and tucked.

This is not to say that women have it all their way in France. Like their British counterparts, they are subjected to more scrutiny about their appearance than are men. Datí was hauled over the coals for her designer clothes, but that may also have had something to do with a perception that she wasn’t up to the job.

On the other hand, there’s a widespread view that a woman’s intellect is a large part of her charm — when the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was asked what he admired most about his good-looking wife, the journalist Christine Ockrent, “her great intelligence” topped his list.

While Church and State are separate in France, attractiveness and braininess aren’t. And maintaining one’s attractive powers is merely good, pragmatic sense. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Remaining visibly, sexually, professionally a woman is a lifetime’s work. In Britain, the struggle may be even greater than America, where women such as Clinton and Diane Sawyer still hold prominent positions in the public eye without anyone questioning whether the should be passing the baton to someone younger.

Come to think of it, America also has some affordable labels doing terrific clothes for older women. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
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