When Elaine Sciolino arrived in Paris as correspondent for The New York Times, she quickly learnt how to play the French national sport - a subtle game of seduction that shapes everyday life

The first time my hand was kissed à la française was in the Élysée Palace. The one doing the kissing was the president of France, Jacques Chirac. It was 2002, the Bush administration was moving towards war with Iraq, and I had just become the Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. Chirac was announcing a French-led strategy to avoid war. He welcomed me with a baisemain, a kiss of the hand.

Chirac reached for my right hand and cradled it as if it were a piece of porcelain. He raised it to the level of his chest, bent over to meet it halfway, and inhaled, as if to savour its scent. Lips made contact with skin. It was not an act of passion. Still, it was unsettling. Part of me found it charming and flattering. But in an era when women work so hard to be taken seriously, I also was vaguely uncomfortable that Chirac was adding a personal dimension to a professional encounter. Catherine Colonna, who was Chirac's spokeswoman, told me later that he did not adhere to proper form. "He was a great hand kisser, but I was not satisfied that his baisemains were strictly executed according to the rules..." she said. "The kiss is supposed to hover in the air, never land on the skin." If Chirac knew this, he was not letting it get in the way of a tactic that was working for him.

The power kiss of the president was one of my first lessons in understanding the importance of seduction in France. Over time, I became aware of its force and pervasiveness. I saw it in the disconcertingly intimate eye contact of a diplomat discussing dense policy initiatives; the exaggerated, courtly politeness of my elderly neighbour; the flirtatiousness of a female friend that oozed like honey at dinner parties. Eventually, I learnt to expect it. In English, 'seduce' has a negative and exclusively sexual feel; in French, the meaning is broader. The French use 'seduce' where the British and Americans might use 'charm' or 'engage' or 'entertain'. Seduction in France does not always involve body contact. A grand séducteur is not necessarily a man who seduces others into making love. (Neither is he usually a man in the mould of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, more of whom later on.) He might be gifted at caressing with words, at drawing people close with a look, at forging alliances with flawless logic. The target of seduction – male or female – may experience the process as a shower of charm or a magnetic pull.

How to play the game

'Seduction' in France encompasses a grand mosaic of meanings. What is constant is the intent: to attract or influence, to win over, even if just in fun. To play, several weapons need to be mastered. The first is le regard, 'the look', the electric charge between two people when their eyes lock and there is an immediate understanding that a bond has been created. The concept is a classic component of French seduction, rooted in antiquity. I decided to learn more about le regard. I knew in advance I would never learn how to do it properly myself, as I am hopelessly shortsighted, which means that my eyeballs get reduced to the size of peas behind my glasses. But as a journalist, I'm a trained observer. In real life a sexually tinged regard may also be used to disarm. On a visit to Strasbourg in April 2009, Carla Bruni found herself in front of a swarm of photographers calling her name. She decided to give herself to one of them. For five minutes she posed, looking only at him, ignoring all the others. He was gobsmacked. Le regard is not done with an open, wide, American-style grin but mysteriously and deeply, with the eyes. Never with a wink. "French women don't wink," one French woman told me. "It disfigures your face."

Words are the second weapon. Verbal sparring is crucial to French seduction, and conversation is often less a means of giving or receiving information than a languorous mutual caress. When words are used as a tool of sexual seduction, indirection and discretion may work best. The frontal approach can be considered brutal and vulgar. Private coaches can be hired in Paris to teach professional women how to rid their voices of chirpiness and men how to cultivate lower tones.

The kiss, the next natural weapon, is subject to its own rules. The most social kiss is la bise, the kiss on each cheek. I always have considered it a straightforward ritual. But Florence Coupry and Sanae Lemoine, my researchers, ganged up on me and explained how cheek-kissing could come with extraordinary power. "You can give la bise to say 'hi' to people you know, and there would be nothing special about it," said Florence. "But... let's say that one day... I also kiss someone I've been dreaming about... I'm so close to him for a second... and it will be absolutely delicious and maybe troubling. Maybe only I know what's happening... Or maybe he guesses it and then what could happen?" Sanae chimed in: "Sometimes his lips will touch your cheek, or he'll try to come as close as he can to your lips and touch your waist lightly with his hand. La bise allows you to get intimate."

Finally, the deal must be clinched. Christophe, a French man in his mid-twenties who is both clever and handsome, has a strategy. "I always play by the rule of the three Cs – climat, calembour, contact," he confessed. Climat is context. "You want to establish a specific atmosphere, which can be somehow magical," he said. "You can transform a random situation into an atmosphere where you feel you are going to kiss each other." Calembour, which literally means 'pun', comes next. "You need to make her laugh," he said. "But it has to be subtle." The clincher comes with contact. "At the fateful moment, you manage to establish physical contact," he said. "Not a big slap on the back. But... you touch her arm. Or crossing the street, you take her arm. This is a very strong signal. And if she does not reject it, you can almost be sure you can at least kiss her."

It doesn't matter whether the French are better at sex. What matters is that they take so much pleasure in all that surrounds the sex act. They make the before and after, the process and the denouement, seem just as important and thrilling and worthwhile as the climax.

Be prepared at all times

It took years before I fully understood French attitudes to public space. I found it both sexist and offensive that strange men felt entitled to comment on what I wore or how I looked. Yet in Paris, women and men are supposed to please each other on the street. You never walk alone but are in a perpetual visual conversation with others, even perfect strangers.

My own style is relaxed, even in the upscale neighbourhood where I used to live. Take the Saturday afternoon I was making cookies with my daughters and ran out of butter. Dusted with flour, still in my jogging clothes from a morning run, I dashed out to the shop. But this was the Rue du Bac, a chic place to see and be seen on Saturdays. I heard my name called and turned to face Gérard Araud, a senior Foreign Ministry official. He was wearing pressed jeans, a soft-as-butter leather jacket, caramel-coloured tie shoes, and an amused look. In his hand was a small shopping bag containing his purchase of the morning. Gérard invited me to take a coffee with him. We sat outdoors at a café on the corner of the Rue de Varenne. I should have known better and invited him into my kitchen. This was one of the premier people-watching intersections in all of Paris. I was inappropriately dressed.

The Swedish ambassador and his wife rode up on their bikes and stopped to say hello. Both were in tailored tweed blazers, slim pants, and expensive loafers. Then Robert M Kimmitt, the American deputy treasury secretary at the time, who happened to be visiting Paris, walked by. He accepted Gérard's invitation to join us. "I see that Paris hasn't done much for your style," Kimmitt joked. "At least I'm wearing black," I replied. When he left, Gérard made what he considered an important point with as much seriousness as if he were delivering a diplomatic démarche to a recalcitrant ally. "The Rue du Bac is not the Upper West Side," he said. "All right, all right," I conceded. I knew the rules: jogging clothes (shoes included) are to be removed as soon as one's exercise is over. Then I got a bit defensive. "This is my neighbourhood," I said. "I belong here. So I can dress however I want!" "You can," he said, with the sangfroid that makes him such a good diplomat. "But you shouldn't."

Why scent matters

Modern perfume was invented in France in the 19th century. It belongs to French culture, the same way lingerie and wine do, and I smell it a lot more often in Paris than in New York. Proximity is one factor. Since everyone does a lot more cheek kissing than hand shaking in everyday life, there are opportunities to get close.

The custom is to wear only enough perfume so that it can be detected when one is near enough to kiss. A sophisticated and alluring perfume can play a central role in a seduction campaign. Drawn to the scent, one is drawn to the person. Lured by sensations that cannot be expressed in words, one is tempted to suspend rational thought and follow the lead of emotion. After an interview with Olivier Monteil, the communications head of Hermès perfumes, he kissed me on both cheeks. I asked what he was wearing. "An experiment," he said. "Rose, spicy, peppery. You cannot smell it from afar, only when I kiss you."

Each year the French spend more than $40 per man, woman, and child on fragrances, more than any other people in the world. Americans spend only about $17 and the Japanese, $4. Spaniards and Brazilians consume more perfume than the French, but they spend less money on it. And there is more. The sense of smell itself is more important in France than many other places. As children, the French are taught to identify smells; there is a popular board game called Le Loto des Odeurs (The Lottery of Smells) that asks players to identify 30 smells, including eucalyptus, mushrooms, lily of the valley, hazelnut, grass, biscuits, fennel, strawberries, honeysuckle, and the sea.

I heard my favourite perfume story at the International Perfume Museum in Grasse where a young assistant offered to show me around. I'll call her Pauline. I asked Pauline about the relationship between perfume and seduction. To put it bluntly, she didn't seem to be trying very hard. Her full body was hidden under a loose black-and-white dress that nearly reached the floor. Large glasses sat crooked on her nose; her fringe fell into her eyes; no lipstick or rouge adorned her face. Her black shoes had square toes and clunky heels.

But Pauline and I found a connection, and the conversation turned to her own life. "If you don't seduce in France, you're a nobody," she said. "I'm very shy, and if you're plain or if you're shy... you don't fit the mould. I tell myself that if I stay in a corner, it won't work, but if I'm smiling and really show I want something, then it comes. It's a kind of game." "Do you wear perfume?" I asked. "Of course," she replied. She smiled. "My husband knew I always wanted Chanel No 5, and a few years ago he gave it to me. When I opened it, I asked him, 'Must I do like Marilyn?' Marilyn said that all I wear when I'm in bed is Chanel No 5," she explained. "My husband said he would like that. So I said to myself, 'Let me be quite crazy'. And I took off all my clothes." Suddenly, right before my eyes, Pauline became a sex goddess. I think I was beginning to understand the power of perfume.

Seduction and politics

The spring of 2008 was a particularly uneasy moment in France. Nicolas Sarkozy had been president for a year, and a recent poll had determined that the French people considered him the worst president in the history of the Fifth Republic. His failure to deliver quickly on a campaign promise to revitalise the economy was perceived as a betrayal so profound that a phenomenon called 'Sarkophobia' had developed. Around this time I read a new book written by a 34-year-old speechwriter at the Foreign Ministry named Pierre-Louis Colin. In it, he laid out his "high mission": to combat a "righteous" Anglo-Saxon-dominated world. The book was not about France's new projection of power in the world under Sarkozy, but dealt with a subject just as important for France. It was a guide to finding the prettiest women in Paris.

"The greatest marvels of Paris are not in the Louvre," Colin wrote. "They are in the streets and the gardens, in the cafés and in the boutiques. The greatest marvels of Paris are the hundreds of thousands of women whose smiles, whose cleavages, whose legs bring incessant happiness to those who take promenades." The book classified the neighbourhoods of Paris according to their women. Just as every region of France had a gastronomic identity, Colin said, every neighbourhood of Paris had its "feminine specialty". Ménilmontant in the north-east corner was loaded with "perfectly shameless cleavages – radiant breasts often uncluttered by a bra". The area around the Madeleine was the place to find "sublime legs". Colin put women between the ages of 40 and 60 into the "saucy maturity" category.

The book was patently sexist. It offered tips on how to observe au pairs and young mothers without their noticing and advised going out in rainstorms to catch women in wet, clingy clothing. It could never have been published in the United States. But in France it barely raised an eyebrow, and Colin obviously had fun writing it. The mild reaction to a foreign policy official's politically incorrect book tells you something about the country's priorities. The unabashed pursuit of sensual pleasure is integral to French life. Sexual interest and sexual vigour are positive values, especially for men, and flaunting them in a lighthearted way is perfectly acceptable. It's all part of enjoying the seductive game.

The sangfroid about Colin's book made for a striking juxtaposition with the hostility toward France's president. To be sure, the flabby economy was one reason Sarkozy was doing so badly at the time; another was that he hadn't yet mastered the art of political or personal seduction. But he was trying. Sarkozy's second wife, Cécilia, had dumped him after he took office. As president of France, he couldn't bear to be seen as lacking in sex appeal. In the United States, mixing sex and politics is dangerous; in France, this is inevitable.

In the weeks after Cécilia's final departure, Sarkozy had presented himself as lonely and long-suffering, but that had seemed very un-French. Then he had met the super-rich Italian supermodel-turned-pop singer, Carla Bruni, and married her three months later. On the anniversary of his first year in office, Sarkozy and Bruni posed for the cover of Paris Match as if they had been together forever. Sarkozy looked – as he wanted and needed to – both sexy and loved.

Anti-seduction

Dominique Strauss-Kahn was long known as a grand seducteur. Hints about his behaviour were the source of rumours for years. In a kind of French parlour game, journalists and authors quoted one another as a way to avoid responsibility for the stories (and lawsuits). Press articles appeared with enough detail and innuendo that any reader could connect the dots and draw conclusions. So many sources told so many stories that at least some of them had to be true, the French said. But the stories also made Strauss-Kahn a living legend, and some people expressed quiet admiration that such a high-profile political figure could find time for such an active social life.

The stories didn't seem to trouble his wife, Anne Sinclair, one of France's most respected TV journalists. Asked in 2006 if she suffered because of her husband's reputation as a seducer she answered, "No, if anything I am quite proud! For a political man, it is important to seduce. As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, that's good enough." Nor did Strauss-Kahn's reputation seem to hurt his political aspirations. He was planning to announce his intention to run for president in next year's election and was ahead of Sarkozy in the polls. Then suddenly, Strauss-Kahn was accused of being a violent criminal. He has been charged with rape of a chambermaid in New York and attempted rape of a writer in Paris.

Certainly, the scandal has nothing to do with seduction à la française. When seduction works, it's magic: it is hidden, mysterious, and oriented toward a glorious, crystallised, ideal image. But it can also entail inefficiency, fragility, ambiguity, and a process that at any time can end badly. It can degrade into the antithesis of seduction, what I call anti-seduction. The DSK scandal has rocked France, a male-dominated country, where women's salaries are 20 per cent less than men's and 18 per cent of the deputies in parliament are women. Suddenly, a serious national conversation has been opened about the abuse of power in France. Some French women have begun to speak out about an atmosphere that condones sexual behaviour that crosses the line and may even be criminal. The scandal has also challenged the assumption that the private lives of the rich, famous and powerful are off-limits to public scrutiny. No matter what the outcome of the two judicial cases against Strauss-Kahn, he has emerged as an anti-seducer.

i had gone off to live in Paris. And it has seduced me. "Every man has two countries, his own and France," says a character in a play by the 19th-century poet and playwright Henri de Bornier. In our years living there, my family and I have tried to make the country our own, even though we know that will never entirely happen. We will never think like the French, never shed our Americanness. Nor do we want to. And like an elusive lover who clings to mystery, France will never completely reveal herself to us. Even now, when I walk around a corner, I anticipate that something pleasurable might happen – just the next act in a process of perpetual seduction. I often find myself swept away without realising how it happened. Not so the French. For them, the daily campaign to win and woo is a familiar game, instinctively played and understood.

This is an adapted extract from 'La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life' by Elaine Sciolino (Beautiful Books)

France vs Britain: Seduction techniques

France

A smile is bestowed as a gift to those carefully chosen

Make-up: either eyes or lips, never both

Scent is subtle, a mysterious invitation

Mealtime is part of the seduction ritual

Secrecy is paramount, even in the media

Le regard, the look with an electric charge

Two to four kisses to greet, depending on social class

Britain

Indiscriminate smiling, particularly when intoxicated

Make-up all over the face, plus fake tan

Perfume tends to be overpowering

Dinner on the sofa, plus TV

Kiss and tell

Either blatant ogling or complete avoidance of eye contact

One kiss, then an awkward hover

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