Love occupies a privileged place in the French national identity, on a par with fashion, food, and human rights. For hundreds of years, the French have championed themselves as guides to the art of love through their literature, paintings, songs, and cinema.
What we now call romantic love can be traced back to the early twelfth century, when William IX, Duke of Aquitaine, created the first troubadour love lyrics. These song-poems focused exclusively on love and especially on the beloved woman. Casting aside traditional practice, William reversed masculine and feminine roles, granting the woman power over the man.
Since that time, one can say that French love has been "feminized"--by which I mean that Woman has commanded the spotlight in French amatory relations, both as the object of man's desire and as the subject of her own desire. The French have never believed that women are any less passionate than men.
One defining feature of love à la française is its forthright insistence on sexual pleasure. Without the moral overlay pervading the Anglo-American world, the French accept the premise that carnal passion has its own justification. From the medieval tale of Tristan and Iseut to modern films like Mississippi Mermaid and The Woman Next Door, love is represented as an irresistible fate against which it is useless to rebel.
Marilyn Yalom is the author of How the French Invented Love: 900 Years of Passion and Romance [Harper, $15.99].