It isn’t just the Sarkozys whose domestic affairs are complex, writes Janine di Giovanni. They’re all at it. Modern French life is a potage of wives, exes, new babies and grown-up kids
The wan grey light at Gare du Nord at Christmastime always reminds me of my move to Paris six years ago. I was heavily pregnant, weeks away from birth in a foreign country. The train ride across the Channel with my new French husband was swift, but I was acutely aware of the 20 years of life I was leaving behind in London as we passed the wet, snowy flatlands of northern France. How naive I was. I truly believed, having spent most of my life outside the country of my birth, and even then, being the daughter of an Italian who immigrated to America, that I would adapt easily to a new culture. I had lived and worked all over the world, and survived some of the worse conflicts and wars. What could be so complicated about the French? I had grown up with French films, books and culture. My first perfume was Chanel No 5. My favourite writers were French.
I will not bore you with the details of my birth in a French public hospital, which was more shocking than any emergency room in a war zone. Or fighting, and losing (but then winning — it’s a long story) the right to breastfeed in a country that discourages it because it ruins your figure. Even the bizarre experience of la rééducation périnéale — which for decency sake I am unable to explain in this magazine — paled in comparison to my lessons about French family life.
It started on the stretcher being wheeled into the delivery room. I mentioned — in between shrieks — that my mother had given birth to seven children. ‘With how many different men?’ the young, blonde nurse asked innocently. ‘Which husband did you come from?’
How my mother roared with laughter when I later repeated that story. She was, in fact, married to my father for more than 50 years before he died. But in my Left Bank arrondissement which houses a mix of old establishment, rich lefties, students and writers, the nurse’s vision of my mother — with her seven children and four husbands — would have fit right in.
Most people I know are on what they charmingly call ‘le deuxième tour’ — the second round. They are all part of the mixed up old-family-plus-a-young-new-one plus a few thrown in which is known as la famille recomposée. The recomposed family. For me, it will always have the image of recycled goods.
Christmastime is complicated for most of us. I used to get anxiety attacks for weeks before 25 December, simply at the notion of being in the same room with all my siblings. But for la famille recomposée, everything seems peachy. ‘What are you doing for the holidays?’ I casually ask my neighbour, a long-haired sexy doctor in her late thirties. ‘I’m going with Jean-Luc [new boyfriend] to Theo’s [first husband who has a baby with new girlfriend] with Marion [14-year-old child from first marriage]’, she says casually, with no hint of anxiety of the tension that lies ahead. ‘Then Jean-Luc and I go to Bali.’
It’s not just about divorce. Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe — 42 per cent — and France trails behind at 38 per cent. But le deuxième tour is a uniquely Gallic thing. It seems that whereas in London, people I know divorce and move on with their lives — not speaking to their partners again, or avoiding each other, which seems perfectly healthy to me. In Russia, many people have what is known as a ‘starter marriage’. They marry young to get out of living with their parents, and are divorced by 30. They then find The One, and marry later on.
In France, this rarely happens. Exes and break-ups are common, so they become less dramatic. I don’t know many French girlfriends who moan over break-ups the way my English friends do — they know the next bus is just around the corner.
Then they reproduce again — France has the highest birth rate in Europe — and it gets more complicated. Look at our diminutive but highly active President, Nicolas Sarkozy. He married Cecilia, whom he met when she was pregnant with someone else’s child. In fact, as mayor of Neuilly, he officiated at pregnant Cecilia’s wedding to her much older first husband.
Then they started cheating on their relative spouses with each other, and finally married with her children, his children, and their new child all heading to the Elysée Palace. Then she jumped ship, got married to someone else, he found Carla Bruni (who had just gotten dumped by someone she had a child with whom she stole from another woman... it goes on and on) and they are trying to have another child to seal their union.
I am exhausted just writing this. As Le Monde put it in a front-page article a few years back: ‘My half-brother, my half-sister, my co-parents, their stepchildren and I.’ The final line of the article says cheekily, ‘Don’t tell the kids they are going to spend vacation with the family. But that they are going for a stroll with their multi-relations.’
Moving back to Christmas plans, I just spoke to a glamorous editor who lives in the shadow of Jean-Paul Sartre’s old haunt, Le Select. (Sartre never married but had many, many, many women, his own version of la famille recomposée.) The editor is getting ready to go skiing in the Alps for Christmas with her brood. And it’s a complicated one. She had a child with a much older man and then discovered love with a new partner.
She continued living with the older man, but got pregnant by the lover. They then moved in together, the older child got split between her and the older man, who was dispatched down the road to a flat.
The new baby arrived, and she decided the older man was The One, after all. She kicks out the new one and is loved by the older man but also by the new man, who also takes care of the new baby. ‘It’s a very Parisian story,’ she has said to me several times, laughing.
Even though my own family is far from perfect and not exactly conventional, sometimes I feel that I am this rare thing, prudish even. I am still astounded at the number of people who get off with each other after the school run. Does that happen in London? I am sure it does, but perhaps they just don’t talk about it as much over coffee and cigarettes at the café.
A few weeks back, I arrived late to a dinner party in a sprawling apartment decorated with modern art near the Seine. The group — a mix of media, fashion, business and arts — was already assembled around the champagne and foie gras, talking about the upcoming Copenhagen conference. Inevitably, Christmas plans came into the conversation.
I couldn’t help noticing that the dynamics looked slightly off — the men were noticeably older than the women. The women seemed doll-like and insecure, holding on to their partners and making a great show of physical affection — as though they had just got together. In the kitchen, I shyly asked my friend what was up. She giggled. ‘Everyone there is on their deuxième tour. For Alex and Alix —’ she pointed to the 60-something man and the 40-something woman — ‘it’s all very new. But it’s great. He wants to marry her as soon as possible.’
We spoke in whispers because down the corridor, her own son from a first marriage was asleep; her new boyfriend’s two daughters were doing their homework. My friend is also newly pregnant (with boyfriend), and getting married over Christmas. Why the rush, I asked her? She wanted desperately, she told me, to cement the deal ‘to le deuxième tour!’ she said, clicking champagne glasses.
That night we got a bit drunk and people told the stories of their first time aro und. It could have been a dinner anywhere in the world: miserly, cheating husbands; frigid wives; sex addicts and alcoholics. But what separates this crowd, and the others that I have met over the past six years, is their desire to recreate the chaos from which they have just seemed to escape.
And then to make it even stranger by assembling the whole potage of a family — exes, grandparents, new relations, babies, grown-up children — and forcing them all to go on holiday together. Isn’t Christmas hell enough without this?
The first time I heard this, I was talking to an incredibly bright French banker about the same age as me. She had a new boyfriend and she was trying to get pregnant with him. As we talked, her five-year-old (from le deuxième tour) and her teenaged daughter (from the first marriage) hovered about, listening to her describe her new passion. The kids, and she, were utterly nonchalant.
Because I did not want just to label the French, and particularly the Parisians, a band of cynical serial spouses, I decided to delve into the past.
La famille recomposée is not a particularly Parisian thing. For instance, I found a study on the years 1750 to 1850 in Alsace. It seems that remarriage in those days was regarded as a completely acceptable practice as was bringing your 14 children along to meet her 14 children. ‘A widower is more eligible with more children under the age of 14,’ the study, done by a pair of French sociologists, says.
I began asking around to investigate why this phenomenon happens. Is it because marriage for the first 50 years of the 20th century was stable in France — nine out of ten people married — but then it all went to pot in the sexually swinging days of the 1970s? By the millennium, fewer and fewer people married and those who did tended to end up in court getting divorced — one in three as opposed to one in ten in the 1960s.
But an anthropologist friend, very wise and the mother of three (with a rather conventional family life) thought it had nothing to do with changing cycles of marriage. She feels it is subtler. ‘It’s about sticking together,’ she said. She mentioned how in France during the Middle Ages, what people feared most were outsiders, invaders and the plague. ‘It’s a clan thing,’ she says.
I scurried off to my thumbed copy of Theodore Zeldin’s The French (which has rescued me many times) and looked up: Families, extended. Zeldin, a wonderful sociologist, confirmed it. ‘In fact, the French abandoned the extended family long ago, but they preserve the family as clan all the same.’
La famille recomposée can also cause misery. Christmas is hell for my Danish friend who has a French ex-husband, two sons who are more French than Scandinavian and a new French boyfriend who divorced his wife seven years ago, but insists on going for a roast chicken dinner every Sunday with his ex and their grown-up children.
They just had a fight over where to spend Christmas. She lost and is spending it alone. He is going back to the clan. She refuses to join her own tribe with his for the day because it’s just not her style (I so understand). ‘They split up years ago!’ she says. ‘I mean, there is no concept of moving on in France.
It is true I am probably widely exaggerating and that critics will point out that I live in a certain part of Paris and that the people I meet are the chattering classes. It is also true that I know some families resemble the one I grew up in. My husband’s brother, François, for instance, has been married to the same woman for 15 years and has six children.
But his other brother, Patrick, lives in Tahiti, his ex-wife, Catherine, lives with her new partner, Loic, and their new kids (two) and his old kids (three) and my brother-in-law’s kids (two) live together in a big house in Nantes.
It sounds mad, but I have gone to dinner where my brother-in-law does the cooking for the whole brood and the new partner does the washing up and the wife, or whatever she is called, sits at the head of the table looking awfully pleased with herself. They never seem to argue. They all claim to love each other. Jealousy is so petty!
Maybe I am being small-minded because the idea of spending Christmas with any of my exes seems like hell on earth for all concerned. The fact of throwing a French mother-in-law into the recipe, along with a few teenaged stepchildren and a new baby just adds to the stress levels.
But then again, as I have said to myself every morning for the past six years — I am not French.
Janine di Giovanni’s last book, The Place at the End of the World, is published by Bloomsbury.