OPINION: Why French women are sick of the ‘sexy French girl’ cliché

They always dress with style, they never get fat and they're super-sexy - but in fact French women are fed up with the 'French girl' stereotypes. Anne Brivet explains why.

OPINION: Why French women are sick of the 'sexy French girl' cliché
Note, this is not a typical scene in Paris. Photo: AFP

Three years ago, I spent six months in New Jersey, USA, to finish my English degree. 

As Rutgers University in New Jersey welcomes many French students each year, I expected that they would not fall for the old stereotypes. Turns out, that was pretty naive.

The number one cliché was is the supposedly highly sophisticated and sexy French woman. It began outside a club, when an American girl complimented me on my jacket.

As soon as she heard my French accent, she suggested that I could ‘’teach her how to dress with so much class’’.

French style

“There is a way that French women dress, that you can’t really emulate”, says the British model and TV presenter Alexa Chung in a video I recently came across on YouTube. In this video, released a year ago, Alexa is supposed to learn how to ‘dress the French way’ thanks to the French designer and influencer Camille Charrière.

To me, there are many problems in that video. First, the idea that there is a ‘French’ way of dressing.  

I have been to many European and non-European cities, and I’ve seen people dressed with a lot of class. So aside from being a highly subjective notion, I don’t think style is exclusively French.

Alexa’s video is an appalling catalogue of clichés. When Alexa asks her friend if she can show her “some French classics”, Camille takes out a pair of Levi jeans (not exactly French, just saying) and… Breton stripey tops. As if every French person had some in their wardrobe.

The high point is probably when Alexa puts on these clothes and says “I genuinely feel more French”. And just when I started thinking that the only way this could become a bigger cliché was adding a beret and a baguette, Alexa finds both in Camille’s apartment.  

A girl in the comments section sums it up perfectly, writing: “I’m French, I don’t dress this way. This is only about rich French girls in Paris.”

And that says it all, because Camille seems to be mixing up two very different notions: France and Paris.

READ ALSO ‘Romanticised and commodified’ – Why France is rejecting the ‘Paris woman’ cliché

The beret, one of the iconic clichés of French women’s wardrobe/Photo: Samantha Green, Unsplash

The fantasy of the parisienne

Camille doesn’t contradict the stereotype, she seems to like the idea. Even worse, she appears to believe in it, and she accentuates it by making ridiculous generalities, as if the French woman was a laboratory subject under scrutiny.

“They (French women) don’t go online and buy lots of things, they still have the act of going shopping,” assures Camille.

Really? Let me introduce you to my friends Camille – we spend a lot of money buying many things on Asos. 

She also says: “Of course French women go to the gym, but they don’t talk about it. In France, you wouldn’t go to the gym in your gym clothes.”

This is unfortunately fuelling the fantasy of the thin and athletic Parisian woman, effortlessly and mysteriously ‘perfect’ without having to take exercise.

Sorry Camille, but you are very far from the truth. Not all French women go to the gym, French women can perfectly well talk about it, and French women can wear sweatpants in the streets even if they are not one of the many joggers you will see in all French cities.

We don’t all smoke, either. Photo: Caroline Hernandez, Unsplash


Another thing that bothers me in this video is also something that I have experienced during my semester abroad. Apparently, the French woman and by extension, the parisienne, is a sexual figure.

But this stereotype does not exclusively target women. In the Netflix Series Emily in Paris, Emily’s friend Mindy always refers to French men as “flirts”.

READ ALSO Why are the French so annoyed about Emily in Paris?

At the very beginning of the video, Alexa makes a link between her French friend’s outfit (a simple tank top) and the possibility of “getting laid”.

I’ve experienced this terrible association of ideas during my second month in New Jersey, when I had sexual propositions from four different people in the same week.

I was quite shocked, and when I talked to other foreign students about that, it appeared none of the girls had been so overtly propositioned.

I was also asked very intrusive questions about my sexual and personal life only because I was French – all questions coming from American students.  

READ ALSO ‘Please stop telling French people that we smell – we do wash every day’

Some French people are experts on wine, others prefer Bacardi and coke. Photo: AFP

Food and wine

A lighter subject, suggested with the baguette at the end of Alexa Chung’s video, is French food. French people are supposed to have delicate taste in food and in wine.

This is widely presented in Emily in Paris. Emily nearly reaches heaven when she discovers French viennoiseries. And surprise surprise, her neighbour happens to be a chef.

The cliché might be true for baguettes, but I don’t drink red wine for example. Even though wine is a real thing in France, not all French people are experts in this beverage, or even drink it.

When I was in New Jersey, Americans were comforted in their vision of French people drinking wine with the example of my friend Benoît.

He would always bring the same bottle of white wine to every party, and this is how the ‘French guy’ was spotted.

What the American students did not know, was that the wine was actually disgusting, and the reason why Benoît always drank it was not taste but the high alcohol content.

“I am always sure to end up drunk,” he told me in secret. So much for all French people sipping in a sophisticated manner and enjoying their fine vintage.

So please, next time you meet a French person, don’t assume that you know them based on the stereotypes you have heard.

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ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Amid warnings that parts of the French health system are on the verge of collapse and a new government plan for health reform, John Lichfield takes a look at exactly what - if anything - is wrong with healthcare in France.

ANALYSIS: How sick is the French health system?

Within 10 kilometres of my home in deepest, rural Normandy I have access to six doctors, a dozen nurses and a medical centre.

Two of the small towns within 30 kilometres have full-service hospitals. A little further away in Caen, there is one of the biggest and best hospitals in France.

Maybe I’m lucky. In the next département to the south, Orne, there are large areas where there are no doctors  at all – “medical deserts” as the French call them. One in ten French people has no GP or médecin traitant. Over 600,000 French people with chronic illnesses have no doctor.

Twenty years ago, the World Health Organisation declared the French health system to be the best in the world. In more recent surveys, France often comes in the top ten and sometimes in the top five.

You can hear John talking healthcare with the team at The Local in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast – download HERE or listen on the link below

And yet the French public hospital system is, we are told, close to collapse, exhausted by Covid and years of under-investment. Some GPs are threatening to go on strike for a doubling of their official fee of €25 for a consultation (less, as they point out, than you pay for a hair-cut or a manicure).

President Emmanuel Macron and his health minister, François Braun, agree that there is a problem. Macron is a doctor’s son. Braun is a doctor. They have diagnosed a number of problems; partly a shortage of money at the point where it is needed, partly chronic disorganisation and poor administration.

French health minister: We must reform the health system to reflect the France of today

President Macron, in his New Year message to health workers last month, promised that all the 600,000 sick people without a doctor would be offered one before the end of the year. He promised that there would be 10,000 “medical assistants” instead of 4,000 by the end of 2024.

He also promised an end to what he called the “hyper-rigidity” in the system of financing, administering and staffing of hospitals. (In other words, he gave no promise of extra money but the government has already committed to spending an additional €19 billion on hospitals over ten years.)

This is not just a French problem, as anyone who follows the news in Britain will know. All health systems in the world are struggling to cope with ageing populations, expensive advances in medical treatment and restraints on public spending.

The French health service is, overall, less impressive than it was 23 years ago when the WHO declared it to be the world’s finest. The same is probably true of all of the others.

The explanation for the French decline is partly universal and partly French; partly about money and partly about French politics, French attitudes and even French geography.

More than prescriptions: 10 things you can do at a French pharmacy

In purely financial terms, France  spends a huge amount of money on  health. Overall, the country invests 12.4 percent of its annual GDP on health care (mostly channelled through the state). This compares to 12.8 percent in Germany, 11.9 percent in the UK and 17.8 percent in the United States (much of it private).

In both GDP terms and cash terms, the amount has been rising despite the fact that investment in public hospitals was severely restrained for 15 years by Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande. In terms of health outcomes France, according to the OECD, remains the second best-performing country in the world, just behind Japan.

And yet there is something odd and unbalanced about how France spends money on health – an imbalance which has become more problematic as cash become scarcer.

Although France spends almost as much overall as Germany, it has fewer doctors and nurses and pays them far less. It has fewer hospital beds than Germany but many more hospitals.

The share of French health spending which goes on administration is 7 percent, compared to 5.5 percent in Germany.

The proliferation of hospitals is one explanation for this high admin burden. France has 4.42 hospitals for every 100,000 people, compared to 3.62 in Germany and 2.86 in the UK.

It should be remembered, however, that the number of hospitals is partly imposed by the fact that France is a comparatively large, empty country. Medium-size towns have their own hospital because it is a long drive by ambulance to a big city. Closing down rural hospitals would – rightly – provoke an outcry.

Even more striking – and less justified – is the French addiction to drugs and pharmacies. My neighbouring small towns in Normandy have two or three pharmacies each; almost every large street in Paris has at least one. It is scarcely surprising that medicines, and their distribution, account for 18 percent of all health spending in France, compared to 15 percent in Germany.

READ ALSO Why do the French love medication so much?

Another ‘French’ factor which has put enormous pressure on the French health service in the last two decades has been the 35-hour working week. Its effects on industry and office working have sometimes been benign; in the staffing of hospitals, it has been a calamity.

Macron in his New Year health address identified the application of the 35-hour week as one of the areas of “hyper-rigidity” in the administration of hospitals that he wanted to change this year. He has been accused of wanting to abolish the 35-hour week in the health service. That is not quite what he said.

As the more reasonable medical commentators’ admit, Macron (the doctor’s son) has done more for the French health service than his predecessors. Apart from the €19bn for hospitals, he has spent an extra €12bn on pushing up doctors’ and nurses’ incomes (which remain lower than they should be).

He also removed the absurd cap on the number of doctors which French medical schools were allowed to produce each year.

Macron is asking for trouble if he thinks he can resolve the present crisis without spending more money. But it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that France has the worst of all possible health services. 

The debate on the  French health service suffers from the same crippling ailment which afflicts other areas of political life in France: a catastrophism which ignores what is going well and fails to identify what needs to be changed.