THREE cheers for Samantha Brick, the Daily Mail columnist who has become something of a public hate figure since she started making a living out of having a go at other women.
Thus far, her targets have included the entire female population (who dislike her because she's beautiful) and the classicist Mary Beard (who is "too ugly" for TV). Now, it is French women – all of them, including the country's new first lady, Valerie Trierweiler – who have attracted Brick's ire.
Apparently, our Gallic sisters are "hostile and predatory, ever eager to humiliate their rivals". Brick was not the only one taking pot-shots last week at Trierweiler, the glamorous journalist and twice-divorced mother of three who has caused controversy by being not married to her partner, France's new president, Francois Hollande. In the Daily Telegraph, a piece by Anne-Elisabeth Moutet trawled through the premiere dame's past, outlining how she had started an affair with Hollande while he was still living with ex-wife and fellow politician, Segolene Royal, detailing her seeming hostility to Royal, and adding that it was Trierweiler, on inauguration day, "who ordered Hollande, whose style this definitely is not, to kiss her on the mouth, thus securing the perfect picture". The Daily Mail ran a style piece juxtaposing photographs of Trierweiler on inauguration day against those of the departing first lady, Carla Bruni, whom they said she "outshone".
One of Trierweiler's crimes is to have arrived at her husband's inauguration ceremony looking more chic than post-baby Carla Bruni. "Without even a cursory nod to the 'sisterhood'," wrote Brick, "Trierweiler gleefully posed in her glamorous attire (Apostrophe dress, £450, Tara Jarmon leather coat and matching leather bag, £800), outclassing the somewhat exhausted looking new mum Carla in a camera flash." Presumably, Brick considers that, if she were truly sisterly, Trierweiler would have rocked up to the ceremony with a sack draped over her head, defying her country's burka ban.
Here in the UK, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for commentaries which depict French women as infinitely more chic, slim or adulterous than us. A glance at the list of book titles published over the past decade confirms our fixation. There is Why French Women Don't Get Fat; How To Be Impossibly French; and Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide To Finding Her Inner French Girl.
And French women are not just better groomed than us. A recently published book entitled French Children Don't Throw Food also gave us opportunity to ponder the ways in which they might be superior mothers.
It was perhaps inevitable that this kind of idealising and stereotyping would produce a backlash – and it has. Six years ago the British and US media began gleefully reporting the fact that the French were getting fatter and might, by 2022, be as chubby as the Americans. A Daily Telegraph piece declared in 2009 that "French women do get fat", in spite of the fact American and British women are still twice as likely to be as obese as their French counterparts. Brick's piece represents part of that backlash, her point being that, while French women might be perfectly elegant and beautifully turned out, they "don't really like other women". As evidence, she cites their apparent willingness to poach other women's husbands – as if men and women don't leave each other for lovers in the UK.
The problem is that with all the stereotypes – whether they idealise or belittle the French – they are inaccurate. Even the caricature of the French as lusty, libidinous and hyper-sexed adulterers has little evidence to back it up. As the author Pamela Druckerman discovered in her analysis of global adultery, Lust In Translation, while many famous French figures have been adulterers, the few available statistics suggest they are no worse than us, and may even be better. "In fact," says Druckerman, "ordinary Frenchmen claim to be quite faithful. In a 2004 national survey, just 3.8% of married men and 2% of women said they had had more than one sex partner in the past year (the best approximation of infidelity) – fewer than in similar surveys in the US and the UK."
Given this, we might want to ask why so many British commentators are keen to see moral corruption, or incapacity for friendship, in the fact French women are slimmer, or more chic, or comment more on each other's appearances? Doesn't this say more about our own difficulties reconciling beautification, intellectualism and ambition? Why can't we just chill out and say "vive la difference"?
One of the things I admire about a close, longstanding Parisian friend is not so much her glamour and grooming, or even her thinness – actually, like me, she is stocky and muscular – but her stubbornly unabashed intellectualism. She is also a warm, loyal friend and a far stauncher feminist than me.
But, in any case, the truth is the French are different, but not that different. Valerie Trierweiler is very much a figure for our time – not just for France but for the wider world – and the fact that a French first lady might be unmarried and have a relationship history is a small revolution. Instead of finding ways to portray her as a manipulative, vain, husband-poaching woman-hater, perhaps we should stop and look at the ways she is to be celebrated. It's worth noting that Trierweiler was nicknamed the Rottweiler, not for stealing, like some bone, another woman's man, but for putting down a sexist comment. She has declared that she doesn't want to be a potiche (a decorative bauble). When a Paris Match coverline described her as "Francois Hollande's Charming Asset", she tweeted: "Bravo Paris Match for its sexism - My thoughts go out to all angry women."
Now, that seems like a lady who is fighting the cause as much for her sisters as herself.
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