French men don’t get fat

                                   Matthieu Pigasse, Lazard banker. Courtesy ParisMatch

Denis Ranque is a genial guy for an arms dealer. He bows a little when he shakes your hand and smiles kindly when your pause to search for a word in French. In press conferences he exudes the calm reason of a diplomat tasked to explain a messy, unpleasant situation. “Sales to the Middle East have been good,” he says, “but the drop in global events has hit revenues.” He is comfortable with the notion that war is his company’s bread and butter.

Ranque was the head of Thales in 2006 when I was a reporter for Dow Jones tasked with following the tech and defense industries. It was my first job in France and I knew little about European business, yet I wasn’t completely unprepared for the job. I grew up in New Canaan, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City, and had spent my childhood around CEOs. No amount of money and power intimidated me.

                       Jack Welsh, former GE CEO, Connecticut resident and likely childhood intimidator

But there was something about the French executive that I found deeply unsettling. They were sleek, even beautiful, with silver slicked-back hair, Charvet suits and a permanent Brittany tan. Even at Davos, in 15 degree weather with piles of snow, the Bloomberg reporters stomping their feet and Warren Buffet gathering the top of his coat, the French soared above humanity. With small smiles they said didn’t mind the cold: “You see,” one said without a hint of American class consciousness. “I enjoy skiing.”

In America men are made masculine by their ravenous consumption—the 12 oz T-bone steak, offset by five-mile run, offset by the 11-hour workday, offset by calculated downtime. But in France beauty, as a proxy for self control, is central to notions of masculinity.  The more powerful French men are, they more soignée they are, careful about their figures, attentive to the small lines that crop up around their eyes, thoughtful about clothes. Their beauty is almost delicate and, for lack of a better word, girlish. Offer a French executive bread at lunch and he will become as neurotic as a socialite trapped overnight in Katz’s deli. “No bread, no bread!” he mutters. “Who ordered bread? I told them.”

                               The beautiful French former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin

This beauty is most rigorously applied at the top echelons of power but it trickles down to ordinary men as well. A friend and I once met in a café where she offered me Normandy caramel as a small present. Without a thought I popped one in my mouth drawing a wide-eyed stare from the waiter.

“You want one?” I offered, holding up the bag.

He took the sweet and pocketed it. “I’ll enjoy this with my coffee,” he said. “Thank you.”

My insides moaned, eat the damn candy, but since then I have become used to the fact that French men watch their consumption with the same diligence as women. I have sat in hotel bars with titans of industry and watched them send back the macaroons that came with the tea. I have listened to moneyed bankers talk about their nutritionist in reverent tones. I have heard council that one must exercise once a week but not more because it will dangerously increase the appetite. In my last encounter with Denis Ranque, he spent five minutes toying with a potato chip before he put it into his mouth with a fluttering geisha-like movement.

                                                                     Denis Ranque, courtesy Les Echoes

In the end, I find the French system refreshingly egalitarian. It’s nice to see men suffer a little in the name of fashion, and it is a relief to not sit across from some husky American executive who orders a hamburger at lunch then complains about his gallbladder. The entire nation of France, not just its women, is embarked on the difficult project of loving food, loving sex and loving fashion all at the same time.  As a nation, we are all tempted. We are all hungry.

Still sometimes, I miss the American boys of my childhood who chased chili dogs with ice cream and drank Coke out of the bottle. Sometimes I am at a lunch with a truly beautiful French man who is eyeing my café gourmet like a starved dog and I think, Oh for Chrisssake, just order the macaroons. Be a man.

How French men stay slim

    • Don’t work out too much.  I know lots of French men who work out once a week. It sounds silly and heart attack-inducing, but they maintain it helps tone muscles without making you hungry.
    • Accept that your wife will tease you if you gain weight. French women prefer to eat as little as possible and they are not above ridiculing their husbands if they are eating too much. My husband eats like a dockworker but is surprisingly responsive to my criticisms. Even an offhanded comment will stop him in his tracks.
    • Listen to your mother. If your mother told you not to snack, don’t snack. If she told you not to drink soda, don’t drink soda. French men believe they were brought up correctly, and they don’t question the food habits of childhood.
    • Love seduction. I don’t see many French men giving up and gracefully sliding into middle-aged paunch. They want to be able to attract the 24-year-old intern, even if they don’t act on it.
    • Let/Make your wife cook for you. American men very often come home from work and scrounge around the fridge for something to eat. French men are catered to by their women who get dinner on the table, even if they are working full time. It’s not fair and accounts for some French women’s bitterness, but it does make for slimmer families.
    • Every single bite counts. Don’t ever put anything in your mouth unthinkingly, even if it makes you look like a sissy in front of an American reporter.


  • Jay

    A fascinating & thoughtful look at French men. I loved these little insights. It is quite an interesting comparison with North American males – I might actually prefer the French way.

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