Let’s get one thing clear – some French people are very, very sexy. Others are about as appealing as completing your French tax declaration. And the same can be said for all nations – so how did the anglophone world come to believe that all French people are innately stylish, beautiful and seductive?
In the anglophone world, the cliché about the French is that they are uniquely stylish and beautiful, sexually liberated and very interested in the world of love and romance.
In the case of French women they are alluring but aloof while Frenchmen – we are led to believe – are charming but faithless, always on the lookout for the next potential conquest and, of course, superb in bed.
While people like this probably exist, it’s far from the norm and yet this stereotype is remarkably enduring.
We asked Emile Chabal, a Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh and a specialist in European political and intellectual life of the 20th century, to explain more.
He told us: “Traditionally, and I think certainly in the 20th century, the dominant ideal of romance and style that has come out of France has involved beautifully cut clothes, elegant interactions between very eloquent people and a society that is very free in terms of interactions between men and women.
“And all of these stereotypes come together to form an image of the French as a particularly romantic people and France as the home of love.
“And I think these stereotypes in many ways are wrong – France in the 20th century is a very conservative society, gender roles are really quite strictly policed and France is of course a Catholic country, so that has imposed strict roles on men and women and how they can interact.
“But I think a combination of French cinema, French music and prominent women in French intellectual life, such as Simone de Beauvoir, all add up to create an idea of France as a country that is particularly open and free, especially in the domain of love and sex.”
So when did the anglophone world start to believe that the French have a hotline to love?
Emile said: “From at least the 15th and 16th century the French are known in Europe for being stylish and fashionable in terms of clothing. But to my mind it’s not until the 20th century that the association with France and sexiness is really cemented.
“What happens is that the French succeed in packaging and selling a certain type of ‘Frenchness’ to foreigners, and this works particularly on Americans, and a major source of this stereotype comes from America.”
Yes, anyone who believes that this is purely to do with self-evident French sexiness might be disappointed – the ‘French style’ stereotype was deliberately packaged and sold by marketing companies, artists and even the French government.
Over the decades this French ideal has been used to sell everything from fashion and perfume to holidays and mid-range family cars (such as Papa and Nicole in the below advert).
Emile said: “The domain of fashion is really important – haute couture is a very conscious branding of Frenchness. The way that fashion houses like Dior and Yves Saint Laurent – which were subsidised by the State – become global is really tied up with French attempts to develop this as a soft power – at a time when France’s ‘hard power’ – that is, military power – is under question after World War II, decolonisation, the formation of the European union.
“From 1960s onwards the French state starts to subsidise culture in a very direct way, whether that’s subsidies for film, fashion events etc. It’s not an accident that certain people are being given a global platform to market an idea of French style.”
And perhaps the art form that created the most enduring images of the French of moody, romantic and sexually liberated was the cinema of the French New Wave.
“I think the French New Wave cinema has a lot to answer for – fashion and style becomes embedded in the way that foreigners see French intellectual life – they see a way of being cultured in France that also involves style – smoking cigarettes wearing fashionable shoes and clothes etc.
“A lot of New Wave cinema is trying to bring a certain French philosophical topics into the conversation, but one that is heavily influenced by an American aesthetic. So actually what people think of as a very French style is heavily influenced by America.”
Speaking of Americans, it was in the US that the ‘romantic Frenchie’ stereotype first really took off in the period after World War II.
The US remains a huge market for France, particularly in the realm of tourism.
Emile said: “The British relationship with the French is of course much much older, but it’s a complicated relationship with a lot of history of conflict. Even in the period after World War II British politics tend to define itself in opposition to the French – we are not a land of revolution, of protest we are a land of consensus, parliamentary politics and this is important in terms of how the British see themselves as a global power.
“The American view is more about individual exchanges and there were two groups who were really influential here.
“The first is the well-off white American women – WASPS – who came to France on holidays or cultural exchanges or to study – think Jackie Kennedy.
“They’re looking for something from France, they believe it to be the land of romance, the land of fashion, the land of style. For the most part these well-off, well-educated women returned to the US after their time in France and became housewives, so they tended to see their time in France as a ‘last fling’. Even if they didn’t actually have a romance there was still this sense of France as a place of freedom and glamour.
“And although these type of women were really tiny in number they went on to become extremely influential in setting a certain romantic image of the French.
“The second group were African-Americans who came to France, particularly in the period after World War II, in search of a society that was more open to them, and then reported back that France was a sort of paradise of freedom – I’m thinking people like Miles Davies touring in France and then saying “They respect me for who I am”.
The most obvious success of France’s marketing of itself is in tourism where France is consistently the most visited tourist destination in the world, and Paris was in 2022 named the world’s ‘most powerful tourist destination’.
“People came and continue to come in their millions to experience ‘Frenchness’,” said Emile.
“The packaging of France to the outside world leans very heavily on Paris – in contrast to marketing within France which centres on going to the mountains, the coast, the countryside and discovering new parts of the country. Paris is marketed to tourists, especially tourists from South Asia, China and the Gulf, as the home of luxury, fashion and romance.”
And if you want proof, check out this promotional video made by Paris City Hall in 2016 with the intention of luring tourists back to the city when visitor numbers fell after the 2015 terror attacks. The film begins, of course, with two attractive people in bed – the tagline isn’t quite ‘come to Paris and get laid’ but it’s not far off.
The classic stereotype still stands, but there has been a sustained backlash a lot of which has emanated from the French themselves – especially Frenchwomen who resent the narrow, restrictive stereotypes of the ‘French woman’, which really only ever encompassed a small group of wealthy, white, Parisian women.
Emile said: “There have been a number of high profile scandals among the intellectual elite involving paedophilia and incest, feminist groups are questioning this image of the ‘French woman’ and the gender roles that implies and there is an increasing focus on Black beauty as the ‘beautiful French woman’ stereotypes especially are overwhelmingly white.
“There’s also an evolution of style so that it encompasses more groups – it used to be that the French were stylish and the British eccentric so that if you didn’t want to dress in the traditional way in France you would go to Britain where people would tolerate you wearing weird things and that was great.
“That has affected this ability to market ‘French style ‘as universal. France has a long and contested history of trying to find a place for Black people and the questions are now being asked about whether these traditional styles work with Black bodies or Black hair and I think those have challenged the hegemony of French style.”
But the stereotype is powerful and even though it is being questioned in France, it might take a long time to change preconceptions outside the country.