I was taken by surprise last month while holidaying in Biarritz. As I splashed through the surf towards the beach I passed a woman paddling. She was topless and it struck me that this was a sight you don’t often see any more in France.
I first came to France on summer holiday as a young boy and recall asking my mother, who is of Scottish presbyterian stock, why French women didn’t wear bikini tops. She replied from behind her sturdy one-piece swimming suit that it ‘was just the French way’
Not any more. In 1984, a survey found that 43 per cent of Frenchwomen bathed topless on the beach. But a similar poll last month revealed that figure had fallen to 19 per cent. Of 1,000 women interviewed, 59 per cent of under-25s said they covered their breasts in order not to arouse men, while 51 per cent said they were scared of being physically or sexually abused if they went topless. Other reasons stated were a fear of skin cancer, and a lack of self-confidence about their bodies.
This isn’t the first time the French have pondered this issue. Five years ago, the women’s section of Le Figaro ran a piece entitled ‘Is Topless Sunbathing still a feminist Act?’. Sociologist and author Jean-Claude Kaufmann said that topless sunbathing was so common in the 70s and 80s it became banal, a summertime ritual with a hierarchy of beauty and youth. Women felt compelled to strip off, and if they didn’t, well, they were prudish.
That produced a feminist reaction at the turn of the century. Young women kept their bikini tops on and in doing so said they were reclaiming their bodies from the male gaze.
In its 2014 article, Le Figaro highlighted social media as a contributory factor in modesty winning out over nudity; forty years ago a woman could bathe topless on a beach and not worry that within a few hours she might find herself going viral on the internet.
There’s another sinister development in France in recent years that explains why women are not only reluctant to go topless but frightened at the thought. It’s what Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a director for a governmental research organisation, described in 2015 as “a police of mores who are principally targeting young women on the issue of modesty”.
The social police in question are Islamists, and while they target principally Muslim women, reports of sunbathers being harassed and even physically assaulted generate a fear among women in general. This, perhaps, explains the 51 per cent who in the survey last month cited assault as the reason they don’t bathe topless.
There’s no doubt France has become more bashful this century, even Paris. On Saturday, I saw a billboard in a Metro station for the latest novel by Franck Bouysse, Born of No Woman, the cover of which depicts a woman breastfeeding. The other breast is exposed, or it was, until the Paris transport network covered up the offending nipple so that it complies with its advertising rules on nudity.
This chasteness is relatively new to France; in 2000, when the Advertising Standards Authority in Britain banned an Yves Saint Laurent Opium perfume advert featuring a topless Sophie Dahl, the French sniggered at our sensibilities, noting that across the Channel the same billboard had been warmly received.
But the truth is that the French have never been more sexually liberated than the British, Dutch, Italians or any other European nation. The stereotype persists among a surprising number of Brits that every other Frenchwoman is an insatiable sexpot à la Brigitte Bardot and the men are all smouldering Casanovas who can charm any woman into bed. Perhaps it’s this pressure that explains why the French have a reputation for taking more antidepressants than any other country.
For decades, Frenchwomen have suffered stoically, only revealing their true feelings in surveys, like the one published in Liberation ten years ago that found 88 per cent of them considered themselves prudish, 37 per cent were disturbed by the sight of a topless sunbather and 29 per cent insisted on making love in the dark.
Some of the 1968 generation, who still bare all on the beach, accuse today’s sisters of being buttoned-up, even Anglo-Saxon in their modesty. But an increasing number of young Frenchwomen would rather be a prude than a prune.