Magazine article The Spectator

La Famille Recomposee

Magazine article The Spectator

La Famille Recomposee

Article excerpt

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 reeducation perineale - 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 deuxieme 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 recomposee. 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 recomposee, 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 deuxieme 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. …

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