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Otto Selles

Francophiles & Francophobes

In search of the real France.

The book is wrong," said my 10-year-old daughter as we walked through a crowded shopping street. Anna continued: "It should be Some French Women Do Get Fat."

We had been in France for almost two weeks. I was preparing a semester-abroad program in Grenoble for Calvin College students, and my family had come along for the duration. Grenoble is a midsized French town surrounded by mountains and populated, for the most part, by svelte women. But as Anna pointed out, there was no avoiding the obvious. Now and then, a French woman took more than her fair share of the sidewalk.

While its argument may be overstated, Mireille Guiliano's French Women Don't Get Fat became a bestseller among American readers. A striking title—one a child could remember—certainly helped sales, as did a strong marketing campaign, capitalizing on Guiliano's cachet as the New York-based president and CEO of the French champagne company Veuve Clicquot.

But is it really possible to win over readers through an implied insult about American women? In a classic conversion narrative, Guiliano succeeds by emphasizing her adopted American nationality and admitting she was the worst of all overeaters. She tells of her year as an exchange student in the United States, where she adopted American adolescent eating ways. When Guiliano returned to France, her father ungraciously called her a sack of potatoes. Unrepentant, she went on to study in Paris and enjoy, undeterred, the city's pastries.

The family doctor helped her back to the thin and narrow. She learned from him to balance her desire to appear slim with her urge to pig out. "The key, he said, was not to conquer the second, but to broker a rapprochement: make friends of your two selves and be the master of both your willpower and your pleasures. That was the French way."

The difference between the French and the American ways is ultimately theological. A French woman knows how to pursue pleasure—and not feel guilty about it. "Nothing is sinfully ...

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