The Secret Life of France by Lucy Wadham

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From the sex lives of presidents and the titillating expose of Sarkozy’s  “sex dwarf style’’ to France’s equality myth, British author Lucy Wadham’s first work of non-fiction, The Secret Life of France,  is an informed, candid and humorous insight into French culture.

Lucy left Britain in her late teens, and met and married a French man for 25 years. She put her children through the French education system and then divorced in a French court.

Her experiences of la vie  Francaise quotidienne as a wife and mother and later as an investigative journalist for the BBC gives her the integrity to write about French attitudes towards marriage, adultery, money, work, happiness, status and race, to name major strands.

Sexual relationships reveal profound differences as the French engage in “sort of seduction games’’ that she reckons disappeared from English society in Cromwell’s reign.

“Being a Woman’’ in France has its own bagful of issues, because intense rivalry between women over the attention and affections of men means “there is no sisterhood in France’’. “French women still act out coquish submissive little roles for the amusement of men,’’ she writes.

Despite the twin-edged sword of flirtation in France and its much freer laissez-faire attitude towards adultery and promiscuity, she found a remarkable absence of gender conflict.  She reports that there is no tradition of gender segregation in France as there is in Britain and Australia “because men enjoy the company of women’’.

“I learnt that the extraordinary female friendships I had known in Britain (something she missed profoundly) were part of a wider landscape, itself not so pretty – a landscape ravaged by a low-level and persistent war between the sexes. The absence of gender conflict in France has become a source of relief to me. Once I had overcome my prejudices, I realised that the constant flirtation – often heavy-handed and irritating but sometimes subtle and uplifting – was a pretty harmless thing compared to the deep seated resentment that seems to infect gender relations in Britain. ‘’

Lucy writes of a “manicured bourgeoisie’’ and  a “culture embedded in image and appearance’’ yet admits  that she slowly converted to the French culture of appearance.

This  “frivolous nation’’ is obsessed with order, hierarchy and above all, gratification. It places high emphasis on education, on literature and the arts.  Its greatest paradox is that it is at once obsessed with the idea of nobility and the ideal of equality.  An entertaining, informative book for anyone wanting to get a handle on contemporary French society and learn what makes the French people tick.

Published by Faber & Faber, London, The Secret Life of France, by Lucy Wadham is available at good bookshops for $35.

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