The crème de la crème?

French women are chic, slim, sexy, great cooks, and are now being called the best mothers in Europe. Too good to be true? The debate starts here
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The Independent Online

Oui! says John Lichfield

French women work harder than most women in Europe, and produce more babies. They also cook brilliantly and, usually, look fantastic.

The first two statements can be proven statistically. They will be among the subjects of debate at an international demographic conference in Tours this week.

The second pair of (mildly sexist) statements are entirely subjective. Of course you see plump women in provincial supermarkets wearing dresses that look as if they must have fallen behind the racks at the Monoprix winter sale. And of course there are some French mothers who feed their families on salt-soaked frozen hamburgers and ready-made chips. Obesity, whatever Jacques Chirac may say, is a growing problem in France, especially in provincial France.

But the population conference in Tours - organised, naturally, by a Frenchwoman - is on to something. Whatever the failings of modern France, they cannot be attributed to its women.

Four in five French women aged from 24 to 49 have at least a part-time job. The French birth-rate - 1.9 babies for each woman - is among the highest in Europe, after Ireland and Iceland. French women live to be, on average, just under 84 years old; the highest female longevity in Europe, along with Spain.

Much government social policy is fashioned to make all this possible - to enable women to be both productive at work and productive of babies. There is a vast system of free nursery schools. Most schools have after-class garderies to corral little Jean-Pierre and Mathilde until mum - it's almost always mum - leaves work. There are free, or cheap, holiday camps for the summer months.

Some sociologists - usually male - think this is all good, and just what French women want. François de Singly, an expert on the French family, says: "The French woman, when she becomes a mother, wants to hold on to her educational and professional capital, but also her seductive capital. She believes she can juggle all her potentialities."

On the more subjective questions, I fall back on personal observation. French women - even young ones - dress more conservatively than British women. They are more predictable, even boring. But they have a natural ability to wear clothes equalled by few nations - not even the Italians. A French woman in jeans and jumper, with long straight hair, can be criminally stunning.

Second, French women may not all be brilliant cooks, but they are interested in food and cooking - something still handed down from mother to daughter. OK, this is not universally true, or the supermarket chains such as Hyper U and Carrefour would be out of business. All the same, many French women - and not just the well-heeled and educated - are willing to trail around street markets looking for the perfect colour and texture of haricot beans. French men are equally interested in food, but they rely on women to do the legwork.

And here we come to the real point. How do French men get away with it? Imagine how powerful and efficient a country France would be if it were run by its women, rather than its men.

French women, compared to Britain and the US (and certainly to north European countries), have yet to break through to the highest levels of business and politics. They are, presumably, too busy buying the haricot beans and collecting the kids.

There's a glass ceiling to check the advance of women in what is still a fiercely patriarchal system of politics and business. Partly, this is the fault of French women themselves. Sisterhood has been slow to come to France. Unlike British women, French women often tend to define themselves by their impact on, and their relationships with, men.

Florence Montreynaud, a feminist and a professor at the Sorbonne, says the "feminine mystique" in France acts against the ultimate political and social equality of women. "Women are led to believe that, even if they have a rich professional life, their ultimate fulfilment will be in the home, or in a marriage," she says.

"For years, French feminists tried to persuade women here that having babies would prevent them from achieving their potential. No one much listened to them. Why, I have four children of my own. When I admit that at international feminist conferences, the other delegates look at me as if I was a rabbit."

Perhaps I should now point out that Ireland has an even higher birth-rate than France, and a higher rate of participation by women in the workforce. The country has had two successive women presidents. Irish women are brilliant cooks and, of course, they look fantastic. My wife is Irish.

Non! says Kate Mosse

This may come as something of a surprise, but apparently it's official - French women make not only the best mothers but the best lovers, too. In what must be one of the most sweeping statements of recent times, a headline in France's daily Libération announces: "The French woman - at work, seductive and fertile."

Fertile? It's like something out of a Soviet propaganda poster. But according to a seminar on European population this week, French women have more babies, live longest, and have the highest professional activity. Well, good on 'em! But do they have to be so self-satisfied?

Of course, we all know that it's just a bit of fun, this crêpage de chignon (catfight), although usually this sort of English vs French spat is played out in a more male arena - (think Waterloo, think rugby, think Olympic bid). It's an odd attempt by Libération to resuscitate the idée reçue that French women are, de facto, more desirable than their British sisters. It's true, a strangely wistful look comes into some men's eyes when Deneuve or Huppert open their delicious lips to speak. (I've seen the same regard in female eyes when my bilingual husband abandons English for French.) The truth is, some are and some are not. Some are chic, others dress in those ubiquitous blue overalls that wouldn't be out of place in Coronation Street.

We have had a house in south-west France, where my novel Labyrinth is set, for 16 years. The book has two heroines, one from medieval Carcassonne, one from contemporary England. They both get to have adventures, lots of sex, and to wield the sword. French, English, I didn't discriminate. Today, though, the idea that French women make better lovers seems bolstered by more pragmatic virtues. Not just attentive to their partners' needs, but better clothed, higher up the corporate ladder, bringing up perfect children - and all without forgetting to pick up the coquilles Saint-Jacques from the traiteur for dinner.

Can it be true? As true, perhaps, as the miracle that if you live on olive oil and tomatoes, it doesn't matter how much you eat, drink and smoke, you won't get fat or old.

But, as Chirac found when he maligned British cuisine prior to London winning the 2012 Olympics, sour grapes taste bitterest to the one who serves them. It could be true that, in the Age of Enlightenment, the French settled the debates that raged through 1980s women's consciousness-raising groups in Britain. French women didn't seem to have the problems that we had - how to have the rights and opportunities that, historically, had been the preserve of men without becoming a man or forsaking the search for the perfect little black dress. (Remember the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher in a dark suit, standing at a urinal next to a terrified Douglas Hurd?)

On our shelves in Carcassonne there are a handful of novels by Nicole de Buron - funny, arch confessional stories of the super-Parisienne of myth. She wears herself out - but never gets sufficiently thin - chasing her own shadow, trying to keep up with the demands of husband, family, work and self. One of them is (ironically) entitled, Mais t'as-tout-pour-être-heureuse! (But You've Everything You Need to be Happy!). In it, every conflict, every teenage drama and every girly lunch could be transplanted from the Rive Gauche to Soho Square, from the Galeries Farfouillettes to Harvey Nicks, from the Canal St-Martin to Camden Lock.

The idea that women, en bloc, are better in Paris than in London is the stuff of headlines, no more. So, although it's true that lots of French women are chic, slim and professionally fulfilled, so, too, are many English (Spanish, Italian, Iranian, American, etc) women. From Manchester to Marseille, you meet the same people. The fat ones and the thin ones, the happy and the dissatisfied, the kind and the cruel, the enthusiastic and the dull. And the chic and the not-so-chic.

I don't just mean that if you sit on the terrace of the Deux Magots in Paris for long enough, everyone you have ever known will walk by. The mix is more or less the same everywhere. And, en passant, contrary to accepted wisdom, you can be too thin, even if you're French.

So, let's junk this male competition thing. French, English, who cares? After all, if it comes to a choice between Dorking and the Dordogne, the only grown-up answer is, "Why not both?".

Kate Mosse's 'Labyrinth' is published by Orion, £9.99