The Human Condition: Maman's boy

Before you fall for that Gallic charm and up sticks to Paris, remember that for every French man, there is also a French mother. Avoid, says Kathy Chambers
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Indy Lifestyle Online
BETH'S PACKS Cacherel boxer shorts into the weekly parcel she sends him. Karen's puts the phone down if she answers. Siobhan's lets herself into the flat to do the cleaning - Siobhan, she says, is sale (dirty) and she needs to make sure things are clean for "her" boy.

We're talking about mothers-in-law, but these aren't your friendly Southend- on-Sea variety, they are all French - and French mothers-in-law are, as English girlfriends and wives are discovering to their horror, a force to be reckoned with.

This is what those breathless summer romances with that gorgeous foreign hunk in the third year of your language degree leads to. Everyone said it would never last, but you believed in it, you papered your wall with the BT cards you used up phoning France, you took out an extra student loan to pay for those weekend Eurostar trips to Paris. Finals under your belt, you bought that dreamed-of one-way ticket. To France and the land of the belle-mere.

"She wasn't a problem while I was still in England," remembers Beth, an Edinburgh University graduate who arrived in Paris three years ago. "I knew he'd lived with her up till then, but I thought it was just a convenience thing on his part. To get his washing done for free, that sort of thing."

It's lunchtime and we're sitting in the staff room of an English language school in Boulogne, a middle-class Paris suburb. Beth, Siobhan and Karen are all teachers here. Teaching is what you do if you're an English girlfriend recently arrived in Paris. "She phones every morning at seven o'clock," says Siobhan, 25 years old and, in her own words, "fed up". She'd originally planned to apply to an airline company after finishing her French and German degree. That was before she met Pierre during a year teaching as a language assistant in Avignon. He moved up to Paris and she moved across. "She makes out it's just to say good morning, but the woman can't stand him being in bed with me, so she's got to get him up."

Siobhan's boyfriend, like Beth's, and like Karen's, lived with his mother before she moved to Paris. This is one of the first things you learn about the French man. He does not inhabit a beer-can-strewn, curry-infested house with a group of mates, a la mode anglaise. He lives with Maman.

Siobhan, she of the sale apartment, has given up cleaning before the belle-mere pays a visit. "The first thing she does is get out the vacuum cleaner, even if it's still warm because I've just put it away. She has to prove that she is the best, that everything was better, cleaner and tastier when he lived with her."

Karen agrees. Her boyfriend's mother insists they go round for lunch every Sunday. By the time they get to his mother's villa, a train ride away in chic Croissy, Karen's already on edge, geared up for an afternoon of parrying subtle digs. "She'll say to him, leaning over me, 'Mange, mon fils. You've not been eating properly back there'. Or she'll scold him because she thinks he's put on weight, meaning, 'that woman's been feeding you stodge'. Then she brings out the mousse au chocolat. And looks at me disapprovingly if I have a helping."

Because, of course, English girls eat. Unlike their French counterparts who refuse with horror anything containing calories. This, as every belle-mere knows, is the proper way for a jeune fille to behave.

Eating is not the only failing of English girlfriends. They have no style. Belle-mere has not forgotten that all English girls are feministes - a dirty word which, she believes, means they refuse to wear stockings. Siobhan's mother-in-law took her aside one day to tell her off for not wearing matching bra and knickers. "She'd obviously been through the washing basket on one of her cleaning sprees. I was livid." And her boyfriend? "He was cross, but only because I was, and he felt he'd better be. He wouldn't say anything to her face, though. He feels too guilty. She's always telling him she's on her own now, to make him feel bad for leaving her."

You worried all through the fourth year Avant garde Lit module that he'd be seduced by some shiny French model with swingy hair. But when you finally got here, you realised just how mistaken you were. In the land of Clinique your real rival is the belle-mere, beautiful mother. If the English translation is comfortably legal, the French word hints at incest. What really bugs Karen are the Sunday afternoon chats in the maternal bedroom. Boyfriend is summoned and Karen is left in front of the TV. "They lie on her bed talking. He thinks I'm being stupid if I say anything. 'It's only my mother', he'll say." Her anger is palpable. There may well be nothing sexual there - she reckons she knows her boyfriend well enough to be able to tell - but there is something about this mother-child relationship that she "can't cope with".

Beth has gone all the way and married her French love, Marc. On her wedding night, her family and the French in-laws were eating at Beth's home in Scotland. "Marc's mother asked him - in French, so my parents didn't understand - whether I'd had an AIDS test. 'You don't know what she's got', she said. She spoilt my wedding," Beth says simply. And yet she'd never intended to get married. "I did it because I needed to assert myself against her. She was always going on about his ex-girlfriends and how pretty they were. I know it sounds pathetic, but I thought it might solve things."

So has it? "Not really," Beth sighs. He still feels just as guilty. Every so often she does the deathbed scene - gets her next door neighbour to phone Marc up and tell him his mother is desperately ill. He has to drop everything and run off to check she's OK."

So why doesn't she leave him? Why are these young women, all graduates, still young, not just turning the page on a sour chapter? Because it's easier said than done. After three years teaching in a language school, you start worrying that you've missed the career boat. You dread replying to e-mails from college friends at Saatchi and Saatchi or Shell because the story you've been trotting out about just teaching to subsidise your glamorous Parisian lifestyle is wearing thin. You're stuck in a dead- end job with a man you think you love (you were once sure you did, but that was when Finals were the biggest hurdle you could conceive of) and a hellish mother-in-law. To leave him would be to admit you were wrong - never easy, even when you haven't given up career and country. But it would also be to let her win.

Before you pack your rucksack, vet his mother first. Persuade him to come to England. Or both of you take off to the other side of the Atlantic. Go to Paris, Strasbourg, Nice at your own risk. For, as real English mummies say, you make your own bed and then you lie on it. But don't say you haven't been warned; many a Franco-Britannique bedroom is haunted.