Monday, August 24, 2009




This particular post brings together two loves of mine, one   enormous intrinsic interest being personal freedom, the second, lesser love being France.


The following comes from an article by Debra Ollivier, an American living in France and concerns her observations regarding cultural differences between women of American/Anglo-Saxon heritage and French Women, who are regarded as being in a class of their own.


She moved to spend a year at the Sorbonne in her early twenties after reading Jean Paul Sartre who declared “L’enfer, c’est les autres!” (Hell is other people) a sentiment which she wholeheartedly embraced at the time.  She became mesmerised by French women:  “They were a sensual and resilient counterpart to the one-size-fits-all beauty standard advocated around me, and seemed to make an art form out of ennui….their sophistication seemed wrapped up in the way they diverged from the aggressively sunny imperatives of “happy”.  She noticed that they had a “defiant sense of self-possession that was somehow sexy in and of itself …..a certain “je ne sais quoi” and “inhabited their own worlds so completely that I might have been from another planet.  My smiles were greeted by a frosty reception, or often returned with a look of placid indifference.  I got the distinct feeling that my sunny Californian demeanour was a mortal faux pas.” 


“If hell is other people, I thought, these women don’t seem to care what other people think of them at all.  News flash:  They don’t.”


She goes on to say it took her years to actually absorb this insight “that the seeds of the French woman’s defiant and sexy self-possession are rooted in girlhood, and all tangled up in the cruel machinations of youth.  Consider the contrast:  Indeed, one of the first pressures bearing down on American girls is the pressure not only to be liked but to be like everyone else.  This seminal feat of self-transformation often invloves loosening one’s grip on that quiet sense of inner self and hitching one’s wagon to a single standard of beauty and behaviour.  The stress of that effort insinuates itself into the young heart and soul with a vengeance, and insecurities go from being hard little buds of confusion to overripe, tyrranical fruits that hang on the vine as we age.”



Ollivier goes on to state that the opposite attitude is fostered in France, individualism is hailed, cloning and conformity of behaviour considered suspect.  The concept of Jolie-Laide, the French term for “ugly-pretty” honours striking looks above tame prettiness.  “The allure of a jolie-laide woman lies in her imperfections, and in the way her inner life informs her outer beauty.  It is the anti-thesis of perfection, because perfection is boring.”


Oh! What liberation!  While, for the most part, we have been spared those Little Princess beauty pageants so plaguing young America, the concept of jolie-laide could do with a bit more press worldwide.  As for not giving a fig for the opinions of the general population, how much more powerful would we Irish women be if we eschewed the contradictory assertive male/aggressive female attitude we unconsciously uphold.


This lack of respect for the concept of needing to be liked by everyone is a very powerful one.  A friend of mine recently described a French Vice-Mayoress who she came across at an International conference.  She said that this particular woman raised the hackles of a number of the women in her (UK) entourage.  My friend admired the woman, who, she felt, wore her power very effectively.  She voiced the opinion, that the women attending the conference would have had no problem at all with a man displaying the same attitude as the passionate and powerful Madame.


Debra Ollivier reveals that the movie He’s Just Not That Into You bombed in France.  Co-author Liz Tucillo (who also writes for Sex and the City) went to France to investigate.  She discovered that when a French woman comes across a man who’s not that into her she simply moves on, without needing a book or movie to figure it out.  She simply doesn’t give a damn.  “Adieu, next!”  Tucillo was told the key to French womens self possession by a French woman:


 “You have to love yourself. You have to know who you are.”


Which prompted Tucillo to reply “If I could, I would have an operation to become a French woman.”


I wish I’d paid more attention to French women when I spent a lot of time in France in my late teens, early twenties.  Ollivier herself said it took her years to figure it out.  Personally I think the key is to know and love oneself, to desire to love and be loved, but not to take things personally.  There are some people you just won’t like, and some who simply won’t like you.  If I don’t like you, it’s my stuff, and if you don’t like me, it’s well, yours.  You can still like you and I can still like me.


I gave my children the benefit of my experience and personal exploration by allowing them a very long rein.  They had to discover exactly who they are, in order to know themselves, have a high level of self respect, and to allow me to know them and them know me.


They are confident and friendly, have excellent social skills, and are philosophical about rejection, quickly processing matters and moving on.


As they are still in their mid-teens, they run with the flock rather than the wolves yet, but I so look forward to meeting the women they will become.





  1. very very interesting. And yes, I can see many of the points she makes and the numerous pitfalls and faux pas American women commit when we come over to France. But how glorious to be in a country filled with such feisty and individual women! Thank you - Madeleine

  2. Debra Ollivier does make some astute observations in her book. One of them is mine, which she reproduced verbatim from my blog without permission or attribution.

    Read about it here

  3. I'm sorry you were plagiarised by Debra Olliver and hope the publishers make it up to you. I would be grateful if you could tell me how you find my blog, am new to blogging. Hope you're not too disillusioned by your experience with D.O.