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Courtesy is having a revival in France

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011, 3:39 am

Did you know that the protocol, etiquette or good behavior is becoming trendy? Courtesy is having a revival. The charming behavior of the elegant man, that makes women feel so special, is one of the reasons that make French men so lovely…

Indeed, the French “art de vivre” has granted women a superior place in the social hierarchy, which is very uncommon, compared to most of the civilizations worldwide. To understand French culture, you have to keep in mind that it is a mix between northern and southern specificities.

The courtesy is a mix of politeness, charm and elegance. It is a refined relationship between men and women, made of kindness and seduction. It has been elaborated during a long process in the Royal Court and the Lord’s domain.

In the Middle Ages, aristocracy has created a specific love: the courtly love or ‘amour courtois’. The knight was fighting in the name of his Lady, or his loved one. Later, in the 17th century, Louis XIV wanted his power to be absolute. Through the Court of Versailles, he wanted to dominate the violent noble men and to make sure that they wouldn’t rebel against his authority. Thus, he wanted to mellow them with fashion, music and love. It was the center of interest in the ‘Cour de Versailles’. In order to reinforce his power, Louis XIV settled a code of protocol in which women were above men.

Indeed, during the 18th century, travelers were amazed to discover how free and powerful the French women of the aristocracy were in Paris and Versailles. They could have lovers, and men were very busy with the art of “faire la cour”, which meant to seduce a lady with delicate and tender attention, and to please her with kind words during a long period (sometimes several years) in order to conquer her heart. Men were fighting a duel for the beautiful eyes of an elegant lady, and it was a very envied privilege to have caused several deaths. Besides that, women were presiding over literary salons where people gathered to exchange ideas, but mostly to enjoy good conversation, wordplay, and a quest for beauty and refinement. They played a considerable role in spreading a new art of conversation and correspondence, and Madame de Sévigné was definitely the most famous and talented of those modern ladies.

After the French Revolution, Napoleon settled the Empire. He was provincial, not aware of this “art de vivre” in Paris, and added to this, he came from Corsica, a Mediterranean Island. His idea of women rights was not very civilized. The Code Napoleon made the wife the property of her husband. He could cheat on her, but if she did, he could leave her in poverty…

Then, the 19th century was the period of the triumph of the bourgeoisie. Its code of protocol was pretty severe.

By the way the refined relationship between men and women still exists in France. ‘The Woman’ appears to be an ideal. She is not reduced to a role of sexual object. ‘The Woman’ has never been as respected as when she was set on a pedestal. This is the sign of a sophisticated society. The heritage of courtesy still exists in French society and distinguishes the elegant man from the common crowd.

I have often noticed that Americans find the French very flirty. But in fact, they are playing the game of seduction, where there is nothing at stake. There is no specific goal. The game in itself is pleasant! Men love to feel adorable and women love to feel extraordinary, don’t we?

Meet our Paris Local Expert:

Having grown up in the Upper Marais, a very creative, trendy and historic district of Paris, Adeline Marchand received a master’s degree in 18th century French history from the Sorbonne. She deepened her knowledge through various experiences: at the Louvre, in a Cultural Center in Italy, at the International Contemporary Art Fair, and at the Festival of Theater in Avignon. She also plays piano, likes going to exhibitions, theater, opera and cinema, and loves skiing and travelling.


Photo credits (in order of appearance): Zitona (featured photo), Adeline Marchand

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