French in a frenzy over philosopher of love and seduction: Steamy dialogues with a former minister have become the non-fiction bestseller. Julian Nundy reports from Paris

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The Independent Online
ONCE he was sure that his partner was asleep, X crept silently along the corridor. To the room of the woman who had fascinated and egged him on all through dinner. He opened the door. She was naked, leaning against the fireplace, her back arched. Her male companion stroked her body. X hesitated, but the woman motioned to him to enter.

Her companion, pretending he had noticed nothing, continued to caress her. 'Come on,' the naked woman said. 'Come on, it's a chance you can't miss.' X did the only decent thing: he made his excuses and left, shocked by her vulgarity.

History does not record whether there was a fire in the fireplace.

For the past two weeks, a book containing this story has topped France's non-fiction bestseller list. The allegedly true account of a dark and stormy night is told by Bernard-Henri Levy, popularly known as BHL, France's best- known modern philosopher.

The book is Les Hommes et Les Femmes, a series of dialogues between BHL and Francoise Giroud, a prominent journalist who was minister for the feminine condition in the first government of President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1974. The dialogues bring a Nineties look to love and seduction, on which the French are reputed to be the experts.

There is no doubt that the book has hit its commercial mark. It graces the shelves of all those who consider themselves intellos, as modern French slang has it. (Private Eye has a different word and a special corner for such a public and its gurus.)

Rarely in agreement, Ms Giroud, 76, and BHL, 32 years her junior, said they recorded their dialogues 'in a beautiful summer month under the affectionate shade of a (wait for it) fig tree'.

Summing up for X, so named to save him public embarrassment, Ms Giroud said he should count himself lucky that the object of his desire mouthed her 'Like a good time, dearie' piece before rather than after coitus. Why? asked BHL. To save his blushes, the ex-minister replied. X, BHL riposted, never blushes; he only goes white.

Theorising about love and marriage is a new departure for Mr Levy. Definitely one of modern France's beautiful people, he became famous in the mid-Seventies when he and his coeval philosophers, Andre Glucksmann and Alain Finkelkraut, stunned the French left by suggesting (because, they said, they had read Alexander Solzhenitsyn) that the then Soviet Union was not Valhalla and Moscow was not Mecca.

Most recently the nouveaux philosophes, as they became known, have campaigned on behalf of Bosnia, visiting Sarajevo to back up their newspaper columns and appeals with first-hand experience. All of them are taken seriously as barometers of intellectual thought and are cultivated by politicians of left and right. Their successful fight to persuade President Francois Mitterrand to meet Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian President, early this year threw diplomats at the Quai d'Orsay into a rage.

Of the trio, by far the most glamorous and best known is BHL. As he glides around Paris in a chauffeur-driven car, it is hard to picture him trading his Left Bank flat for philosophy's Athenian barrel.

Undeniably handsome and usually described as Byronic, he takes black tea, not wine, with lunch and is known for his open- necked white shirts and languorous - cynics might say intentionally significant - gaze.

After two marriages, his regular companion now is Arielle Dombasle, an actress who, it can hardly be imagined, was uppermost in his mind when BHL and Ms Giroud discussed whether and how ugly people could be attractive. Ugliness, the title of one chapter in their book says, is 'a fundamental injustice'.

Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his brilliance and intellectual charm, could do nothing for Ms Giroud, who was married once for 10 years. On the physical plane, Sartre was just too ugly. 'Were you never attracted or charmed by Sartre?' BHL asked. 'Attracted and charmed, yes,' Ms Giroud replied. 'But I would never have wanted him to touch me.'

Had BHL, Ms Giroud asked, ever loved an ugly woman? 'Loved? Let's not exaggerate.' 'Desired?' 'Of course.' BHL said he could be attracted by 'a voice, a silhouette, a way of smiling, a name . . . an image, a phrase, a sudden or not-so-sudden vulgarity. And the result, the sum or the subtraction, of that could be a woman who, by the standards of the moment, would be catalogued as a monster'.

Les Hommes et Les Femmes, the authors said, came from conversations they had as they kept themselves 'deliberately far from the news and the fracas of the world to reflect together on what has become of relations between men and women'.

To keep their intellectual heads above water, they peppered the book with references to the classics and philosophers. Ms Giroud remarked that, in the past century, the emotions of two of the most famous women in fiction, Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, were the fruit of men's imagination.

It is a book that attacks stereotypes ('the woman who faints when she sees a mouse, and the Marlboro cowboy') and words people use ('my other half' is dismissed as a phrase used by grocers).

The authors agreed that feminism, in its American version, had 'slipped into a sort of hate-filled delirium', in Ms Giroud's words. BHL declared himself 'in a hurry - in the interest not just of the couple but of women - to divest ourselves of so-called 'feminist' ideology'. But they disagreed on platonic love, something Ms Giroud believed was possible, especially after an affair. BHL replied: 'Love is never platonic. You cannot love a woman without violently desiring her body.'

On money and love, BHL admitted that, as an adolescent, he was fascinated by the wives of the rich. 'They are charming, sometimes beautiful. They have the most exquisite life. But look at them closely, look at that absence in their eyes. That discreet melancholy.'

His views often exasperated Ms Giroud.

'It's funny,' she said, 'you are much younger than I am, yet sometimes I have the feeling I am listening to my great-uncle Adolphe who said, the dear man, 'While I am alive, never will a woman in my family go to work'. '

Ms Giroud apparently is not alone. The Independent on Sunday may have news for BHL. At 73, the French novelist Benoite Groult is compiling A Dictionary of Sexism.

According to publishing sources, Ms Groult is preparing a generous entry for BHL.

(Photographs omitted)