Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Let’s unpack that

How the French finally lost their sex drive

It’s official – our liberated Gallic neighbours are losing their infamous libido. Helen Coffey questions whether modern-day life is to blame, or whether the va-va-voom image was ever really more than smoke and mirrors

Thursday 08 February 2024 06:00 GMT
Would Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg have swapped sex for social media?
Would Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg have swapped sex for social media? (Universal International/Kobal/ Shutterstock)

Many’s the time I’ve stared wistfully into the distance and uttered the words: “God, I wish I was French.”

I blame film and TV. They’ve brainwashed me into thinking I would be totally different if I’d simply been born on the other side of the Channel: an effortlessly chic question mark of a femme, draped in black and dripping with aloof allure, Gauloise dangling insouciantly from two long, elegant fingers. (I may never have smoked a cigarette in my life but I would absolutement be courting lung cancer were my name Hélène Café.) Underneath this exterior of bored, beautiful sophistication would simmer a powerful sensuality suggesting that, if I hadn’t just had sex, I was probably just about to. Because, if there’s one thing we know about the French, it’s this: they’re sexy as hell and at it like lapins.

Fear not: I’m well aware of how totally delusional this caricatured trope is. And now it’s been officially proven that the sexed-up stereotype is, really and truly, a myth – a new survey has revealed that France’s national libido is on the wane.

The poll, conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP), found that one in four (24 per cent) French adults between the ages of 18 and 69 reported they’d had no sex during the past year, compared to just 9 per cent in 2006. Of those aged 18 to 24, 28 per cent said they’d never had sex – a massive leap from 5 per cent in 2006. And the percentage of the 1,911 respondents who claimed to be having sex at least once a week had plummeted from 58 per cent in 2009 to 43 per cent today. It’s giving less ménage à trois, more ménage à blah.

Some of the reasons behind this lacklustre lack of lust were somewhat depressing to read for a devoted Francophile raised on a diet of Gallic sirens comme Brigitte Bardot and Juliette Binoche. Nearly a third (31 per cent) of respondents said they had avoided sex at least once to watch a television series, read a book, go on social media or play video games. This last distraction was particularly common for men under the age of 35 – some 53 per cent of them had wriggled out of une partie de jambes en l’air (”a game of legs in the air”) to focus on a different kind of gaming at least once.

Video games? Instead of sex? This, from the nation that gave us the Moulin Rouge, Madame Bovary, and the most poetic idiom for an orgasm ever created: la petite mort (the little death)? This, from the country that birthed Serge Gainsbourg, he of that infamous “Je t’aime... moi non plus” song that propelled the sound of a woman orgasming to No 1 in the charts? This, from a people so accepting of uncontrollable sexual appetites that it’s practically a legal requirement for the president to have a mistress, and where crime passionnel (crime of passion) was a valid defence for murder until the 1970s?

Say it ain’t so! C’est pas possible!

Adèle Exarchopolous and Léa Seydoux in ‘Blue is the Warmest Colour’ (Wild Bunch)

In fairness, modern-day tech and distractions don’t really fit with the hyper-sexualised image of the French immortalised in fiction and cinema. Imagine a Betty Blue – the “sex-and-suicide flick that turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”, in the words of Peep Show’s Mark Corrigan – in which oozing-with-charisma Béatrice Dalle catalogues her breakdowns via viral TikTok videos. Picture queer erotic-fest Blue is the Warmest Colour with Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos swapping frantic lesbian sex for bingeing a structured reality show. Visualise a version of whimsical Parisian love story Amélie where protagonist Audrey Tautou silently leads Mathieu Kassovitz to her bedroom – only to hand him a console and boot up World of Warcraft. It simply doesn’t work.

It’s not really the responsibility of the French to keep up the dying-from-desire image just to satisfy the repressed British contingent over here

Of course, it’s not really the responsibility of the French to keep up the dying-from-desire image just to satisfy the repressed British contingent over here. Some of the data suggests there might be positive motives for doing it less: for example, the strides women have made in achieving greater independence. Just over half (52 per cent) of French women said they sometimes had sex without really wanting to, compared to 76 per cent in a similar poll conducted in 1981.

“Women’s financial autonomy has enabled them to realise that they don’t always need to say yes if they don’t want to,” François Kraus, the director of the IFOP politics and current events survey, pointed out. He also attributed the decline to a generational shift away from the sexual liberation that typified the end of the 1960s – “it’s counter-cyclical, what one generation does intensely, the next does less” – and to the fact that the social pressure to have an active sex life had diminished. Some 12 per cent of survey respondents identified as asexual.

Did Emily rob Paris of its sex appeal? (Stephanie Branchu/Netflix)

But even so; I can’t help but be a little disappointed in our previously libidinous neighbours. Who are we supposed to hang our fantasies on now? Data aside, I’m inclined to blame Emily in Paris, the Netflix series viewers love to hate, in which Lily Collins plays the worst kind of vapid American. Swanning around the French capital in beautiful outfits, she is curiously charmless and has all the charisma and eroticism of a Formica worktop. Her asexuality is so powerful, in fact, it almost manages to drain Paris – the city of love! – of its seductive appeal.

If my theory’s correct, France’s sex slump will get worse before it gets better – series four is currently in the works. Quel dommage

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in