on La Seduction by Elaine Sciolino (Times Books/Henry Holt)

“France is having its Anita Hill moment,” Elaine Sciolino writes in a recent issue of Time regarding the infamous behavior of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “Women suddenly said that the Mad Men style of behavior they had put up with for so long at work – the leering, the inappropriate touching, the sexual banter – was not acceptable.”

SciolinoParisBW.jpgThe key word here is “suddenly,” for in La Seduction, Sciolino’s pert consideration of French culture and style, she recounts conversations with prominent women who voice no such complaints. Sciolino holds the distinction of being one of the very few non-French members of the Femmes Forum, a Paris-based private club of prominent women living in France. She says, “What surprised me most was that a number of my women’s club members do not favor uniform gender standards in the workplace. I responded that if they have to play the femininity game, they will always be treated as somehow inferior. Not so. One member said, ‘If you want to have equal opportunity and treatment in professional life, you should above all stick with seduction. It’s the only way to avoid frightening men.’” These women unanimously considered “the politics of American feminism divisive, brutal, and unnecessary.”

Sciolino.jpegEarly in her career, Sciolino was a Newsweek correspondent in France, and in 2002 she was named Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. She is as connected as an American can be in Paris. Nevertheless, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing warned that her inquiries into the nature of French seductiveness would never adequately illuminate their subject. “I have never met an American, never, who has really understood what drives French society,” he said. “The idea that an American is going to penetrate the system? No.”

But Sciolino has learned from the French. La Seduction is a seductive book because she is both susceptible to the allure and critical of or charmingly amused by its pretensions. As a character in her narrative, she goes about asking a range of people to explain French seduction – or rather, to amplify her own definitions in the book’s opening pages:

“In English, ‘seduce’ has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader … What is constant is the intent: to attract or influence, to win over, even if just in fun … Seduction is bound tightly with what the French call plaisir -- the art of creating and relishing pleasure of all kinds.”

The DSK case, then, seems not only to have caused some French women to express various annoyances, but perhaps even more seriously has damaged the reputation of France’s main export. The country’s seductive brand essences are infused within their champagnes, perfumes, foods, fashions, and tourism brochures – and in recent years, at least until Nicholas Sarkozy took a deep breath and fueled La Patrie’s jets to bomb Gadhafi, France primarily wielded its supposedly persuasive “soft power” to influence events.

SciolinoCover.jpegLa Seduction is rich with detail and anecdote as it peers at French social behaviors and its foods and restaurants, wines, lingerie, and fragrances (the French spend more than forty dollars per every man, woman and child on perfume, more than any other country. Some 83% of French men say lingerie is an important element of life). The symbol of France is a woman – Marianne – and Roland Barthes described the Eiffel Tower as a woman. Sciolino follows up by considering the French view of the female form, especially her tesses (more than her breasts). The book’s final section tracks the seductions of her most powerful politicians, from de Gaulle, Mitterand and Chirac to the current regime.

In fact, Nicholas Sarkozy appears to have provoked Sciolino to write La Seduction in some way – and her undisguised scorn for his crudeness suggests her own attachment to and affection for French seductiveness. The déclinisme now troubling the French includes unease with Carla’s husband. She snickers at Sarkozy’s much-satired tiptoe-raising photo taken with the Obamas. In June 2007, she interviewed Sarkozy during his third week in office:

SarkozyOnTiptoes.jpeg“We did not have a relaxed man in front of us. He shifted uncomfortably, as if his body could not be contained in the gilded, brocade-covered armchair in which he sat. He casually leaned back and propped up one of his legs on the other, an incongruous sight in such a formal setting. At one point he swallowed whole a white pill almost an inch in diameter – without benefit of waster. Even more surprising were his manners. On the table before him were four small china plates of assorted French charcuterie and cheeses. He ate from two of them but did not pass them around or offer them to us. The table was exceptionally wide, and so it would have been awkward for us to dare to serve ourselves. So we sat there watching as he chewed and talked, chewed and talked, without appearing to take a breath.”

The book ends with a dinner party organized by a friend to stimulate discussion about seduction. A “brilliant novelist” in attendance says, “Everyone knows that the Frenchman who behaves like a seducer is insufferable. On the contrary, the Frenchman who doesn’t play at it is the one who truly seduces. If you have to make an effort, it’s a failure. If there is effortless, it’s an art!” This is the truest judgment of DSK whose behavior is an insult to the beauty and subtleties of seduction. (Michele Fitoussi, a novelist, explains to Sciolino, “Beauty in France is very interiorized – like wearing a trench coat with a mink lining.” Sciolino says, “The French think that style is what you create yourself.”)

JapaneseLady.jpegIn 2006, the BBC reported that surprisingly large numbers of Japanese tourists visiting Paris had suffered severe transient psychological breakdowns called “Paris syndrome,” sometimes requiring repatriation of the patient. The Japanese embassy set up a 24-hour hotline to handle calls from its shocked citizens. Apparently, they collapsed in the gap between the Paris of their dreams and the actual city by the Seine. But as Sciolino shows, there is still plenty of seduction remaining in French life – and much pleasure to enjoy in her lively probe.

[Published June 7, 2011. 352 pages, $27.00 hardcover, $12.99 e-book]