Last week my daughter had to choose an article from The Times to analyse. She flicked through the newspaper on the way to school, reading out the headlines. Rejecting ebola, American race riots and Labour’s plans to squeeze the private schools until the pips squeak, she liked the sound of a piece on French shopping.
“French men outspend women on wardrobes.”
“That’ll be a filler item for light relief,” I said confidently. “If in doubt have a pop at the French, based on the usual stereotypes.”
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll do that one. Racial stereotyping led to the holocaust.” Atta girl.
When she got back from school we had a look at the article, which was based on a ‘new’ survey of French shopping habits carried out by an agency called CCM Benchmark. We looked up CCM Benchmark’s website and found no mention of the survey. A bit of digging traced the findings to a survey by the French Fashion Institute (IFM) in 2012.
Surprisingly, the survey seemed to contradict the headline: E10.6 billion of wardrobe spending by women, E8.6bn by men. Only in one small age segment, 25 – 34 year olds, did men outspend women by a few euros. This was enough for Adam Sage of The Times to declare that “younger men have become obsessive shoppers. Stereotypes are being rewritten.” And what stereotype would that be?
“Men in France are meant to be deep and meaningful, not stylish,” writes Sage. His stereotypical Frenchman is dead scruffy, like Depardieu, who is ‘forgiven and even admired for being dishevelled.’ Gégé may not be the best example of French reverence for the bohemian artist, on the day he was vilified for turning up too drunk to read his script at a First World War memorial ceremony. Urinating in the aisle of the plane was a protest gesture not widely applauded in the home country. Nor it did go down well when the man described by his son as a money-obsessed alcoholic took up residence in Belgium to avoid tax and cosied up to Putin. Depardieu may be the most unpopular man in France at the moment, after Hollande. Not so much a treasure, as a national disgrace.
What about the more familiar stereotype, that Frenchmen are all smarm and charm; nicely turned out but unreliable; bags of style but no substance; just the sort of person one would expect to take a great interest in his wardrobe?
“Have you heard of Aunt Sally?” I asked my daughter. “It works like this. You tell me that I believe something that I don’t in fact believe, then you tell me how wrong I was to believe it.”
“Why would I do that?” Because otherwise there’s no story. Aunt Sally is the basis of much of our political discourse, not to mention the ping pong of domestic recrimination.
How about the core suggestion that “young men are obsessed by shopping”?
The IFM survey found that women’s clothing went down in price during the economic crisis, while men’s clothes didn’t, suggesting that women are more price conscious than men. Other findings (not mentioned by The Times) were that women shop for clothes more often and spend more time but less money per visit than men. Doesn’t that suggest that it’s women who are the more serious – obsessive, to use the journalese – about shopping? Well, yes, it does.
It was an interesting exercise that taught us a little about the French and quite a lot about journalism. No need to rewrite the stereotype of the lazy foreign correspondent, it would seem.