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Journalist discusses French concept of seduction

EMILY McCONVILLE | Friday, October 11, 2013


On Thursday, Elaine Sciolino, a Paris correspondent for the New York Times and author of “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life”, gave a lecture where she explained how the idea of seduction plays an integral role in French society, affecting French politics, foreign policy and the economy. 

In French, Sciolino said the word “seduction” has a broader meaning than the sexual connotation it has in English. 

“Seduction is nothing but a conversation that doesn’t end, whether it’s in the bedroom, the boardroom, the corridors of power or in business,” she said. 

As a result, Sciolino said certain forms of communication become “weapons of seduction” in French culture, often confusing Americans. For example, she said, the French place a higher emphasis on “verbal sparring” in conversation. 

“Conversation is not necessarily a way to accomplish a goal,” Sciolino said, “but more of a verbal contest and a source of pleasure.” 

Sciolino said forms of nonverbal communication like hand-kissing and the limited use of smiles can be used as other “weapons”. 

“This is why some Americans find the French rude, but the absence of smiles does not seem to indicate the absence of kindness,” Sciolino said. “It signals reserve, that the smile is not something that is given away; it has to be earned.” 

Seduction’s effect is most visible, Sciolino said, in the political realm, where candidates for public office build the image of being charming and popular with the opposite sex.  

“My research has shown me that French politicians – male politicians, at least – gain more stature the more sexually alluring they appear, because the rule of French politics is that politicians love and are loved,” she said. 

The ideology of seduction also appears, she said, in France’s foreign policy, where the very concept of “soft power,” or the ability to influence other countries without military strength, is translated as “la seduction.”

Sciolino recounted negotiations between American and French diplomats over a United Nations treaty. She said when the Americans expressed concerns over the treaty’s inflexibility with regards to foreign intervention, the French diplomat responded that breaking treaty would be like cheating on one’s wife —- not difficult. 

The absence of the “ongoing conversation” of seduction, Sciolino said, not only hurts the electability of political candidates, but it also explains certain fundamental problems with the French economy as it deals with an expanding global economy.  

“For decades an awareness of the decline of France has bored deep into the national consciousness, and there’s still this admiration and clinging to history …  coupled with the fear of the unknown,” Sciolino said. 

The result, she said, is “the antithesis of seduction.” 

Contact Emily McConville at emcconv1@nd.edu