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From Strauss-Kahn to Savoy, the French Drag Sex Into Everything

The cover jacket of the book "La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life" by Elaine Sciolino. Source: Henry Holt and Company via Bloomberg

Just as former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn awaits trial on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault, Elaine Sciolino is publishing “La Seduction,” a survey of how the French drag sex into everything: clothes, scents, meals, conversations, politics.

Sciolino is a Paris correspondent for the New York Times, and she has the place figured out. Yet she can’t resist tossing in the usual cliches, as if to lure Americans for whom, as she says, “Paris is the city of love and the French are great lovers.”

From their perspective, it seems, France is a land of slender woman, suave men and cafes where thinkers smoke and scribble. The workweek is irresistibly short, the food is steadily great and life is one big wellspring of bliss.

The reality is much drearier. France is the second-most-profitable market for McDonald’s. Waistlines, especially in the cement-block suburbs, are as bulky as any. Youth unemployment runs at 23 percent. And in Sartre’s old cafe, you’ll strain to spot a French person, let alone a scribe.

The author does administer doses of that reality. Her analysis -- backed by a rich bibliography -- seldom misses the mark. It’s just the initial examples that are trite; they seem appetizers aimed at reeling in the reader.

The germ of this book was sown when Sciolino read a foreign-ministry speechwriter’s guide to Paris’s best-looking women, which classified areas by their “feminine specialty,” recommending places to spot plunging necklines and perfect legs.

Icons of Seduction

Sciolino was stunned that a government official’s “patently sexist” book should fail to shock. Looking for insight into France’s culture of seduction, she decided to quiz two French “icons of the modern world of courtesans (without the sex part).”

Arielle Dombasle, a mermaid-like actress-singer-dancer, likens seduction to war, and warns Sciolino never to walk naked in front of her husband, or he won’t buy lunch. Model-turned-designer Ines de la Fressange suggests that, for research purposes, Sciolino -- a married mom -- take a French lover. When Sciolino shares that kernel of wisdom with her spouse, he tells her it’s too much information.

Other talking heads offer similarly caricatured quotes. The intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy recalls how he offended a young woman in the U.S. by telling her she looked like a “bimbo” and wishes he’d said “baby doll” instead.

Fashion, Fragrance, Wine

Just as Sciolino seems to be losing the thread, the book suddenly gets better: meatier, and more to the point.

Fashion, fragrance, wine, and food are all persuasively shown to be proxies for sex. Chef Guy Savoy takes Sciolino into his mother’s kitchen for real andouille, straight from the oven.

Most substantial of all is the section on seduction and public life. After a skim through history -- and a mention of the president who died during an intimate visit from his mistress at the Elysee Palace in 1899 -- she delivers firsthand accounts, including a sharp portrayal of Nicolas Sarkozy.

When they first meet, Sarkozy shifts awkwardly and swallows a large pill. The next time, he rocks in his armchair, stumbles on the word “multilateralism” and says she’s “raising burning issues in a perfectly banal way.” The man is unliked, she writes, because he is unseductive.

In her last book, “Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran,” Sciolino showed a knack for understanding perplexing places. As an Iranian who lived in France for 18 years, I know both countries reasonably well, and to my mind, she nails them both. If only “La Seduction” had more from the Elysee insider and less from the wide-eyed outsider.

“La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life” is published by Times Books (338 pages, $27). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Farah Nayeri is a writer for Muse, the arts & leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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