I recently had a disagreement with a French friend from Toulouse about politeness. He claimed that Parisians were extremely rude; I agreed that they were rude in shops and banks, but there were several points we differed on. He had observed that Parisians never held the door open for the person following them; this was, on the contrary, one of the polite gestures of everyday life that had most struck me in Paris. He also said that people barged out of the lift in a "survival-of-the-fittest" rush, whereas I had often been quite embarrassed by the fact that people would wait for me to leave the lift (or go through the door, etc) first. We soon realised that we were talking about two completely different situations: he was a man and I was a woman. To add to this fundamental discrepancy, when I lived in Paris I taught English in the private sector, which meant that I spent rather a lot of time travelling around in a short, straight skirt and tailored jacket. This is not something I do in Toulouse, and I have noticed that people are a little less polite here. Did I say "people"? I meant "men", of course...
In Paris, men will sometimes even go as far as offering their seat in the metro to a young woman dressed in a conservative style. Old women, of course, have to stay standing up, which is hardly surprising since they appear to have become invisible (best not be old in Paris, in any case). But the good news (?) for women over here is that it takes a relatively long time to get to this stage of invisible old age. The ideal "grandmother" for the French, according to a recent survey, is Catherine Deneuve. In other words, the rules of the game on the female side are to stay sexually attractive as long as possible and reap the benefits. This is true everywhere, you will object; but no, I think that in France it is more important for women to stay sexy longer. (Sit outside a café in the quartier de l'Opéra in Paris -- if you can afford it -- and count the gorgeous women in their fifties. Now try the same test in Rome or Sydney...) Of course, the time and money devoted to achieving this result are considerable, and no doubt a fair amount of personal suffering is often involved (another test: now it is Summer and everyone is wearing as little as possible, take a walk around the centre of town and count the anorexics...).
As for the other side of the bargain, it has its ups and downs. Whereas in some countries (and notably Australia) courtship is something that happens between two people, in France it is the man's job, and quite some job it proves to be. This is called "la drague", a word for which my dictionary fails lamentably to provide any translation but "dragnet"; it does better on the verb "draguer" which is "to chat up girls", and the noun "dragueur", which means either a "dragnet fisherman" or a "guy who's always after the girls". Now, there are "dragueurs" in every country, I imagine, but in France it is practically obligatory for a heterosexual male to be a "dragueur", at least to some extent. Of course, there are the real professionals, the full-timers, the ones who use public parks or beaches as a fishing-pond where the least subtle techniques, applied on an industrial scale, will eventually provide a catch. But the average French male, who wouldn't dream of striking up a conversation in the Jardin de Luxembourg, is nevertheless obliged (if he wants to get anywhere) to learn some basic techniques and to apply them assiduously. French women fulfil their side of the bargain by looking enticing, which requires quite enough effort; they are not going to take any further steps such as being encouraging. No doubt this is why a (male) Australian friend of mine, who managed, after a year in France, to acquire a French girlfriend, confided "Whew, that was hard work".
Nevertheless, to understand how fundamental "la drague" is in French society one should perhaps make a distinction between what could be called "la drague spécifique" or "directionnelle" and "la drague ambiante", or general, atmospheric "drague". The former, 1st degree "drague", has a precise aim, which will not surprise anyone: the dragueur wants to go to bed with the draguée. More difficult to explain is the 2nd type, or "drague ambiante", and yet this is an essential aspect of relations between the sexes in France. A Frenchman who does this well -- and many of them are very good at it -- will manage to give the impression, to any woman in his vicinity who has not yet slipped past the Catherine-Deneuve-style-of-grandmotherhood, that he would like to go to bed with her if he could. The tricky thing is to give this impression to many women at the same time without making anyone feel jealous, and of course without being vulgar; this is generally made possible by the fact that it is all, well, not exactly tongue in cheek, but sort of "au deuxième degré". No one can be offended by it -- neither the woman nor her husband, if he happens to be there -- once they have realised the essential: that it is all just for fun. Of course, the 2nd degree "dragueur" may authentically want to go to bed with all or some of the women in question, but that is beside the point. It would in any case be impolite for him to suggest that he did not want to go to bed with them.
This sort of "drague", which used to be known as "la galanterie", is mainly based on a combination of attention, compliments, meaningful looks and, if the occasion is propitious, jokes (the kind that would probably not go down well in a non-Latin country). Certain outings with my Toulouse-based hiking club have been exemplary, with continuous sexual innuendo culminating in explicit jokes at the moment of the lunchtime pause. (The club's age group is mainly between 30 and 60, the innuendo getting more explicit among the older half.) One result of this generalized "drague" is the mixing of the sexes: men and women actually talk to each other at social occasions, rather than separating along strict gender lines with the women in the kitchen and the men in the armchairs, like in Australia. This is rather pleasant, but of course there is a down side: it is hard work to establish any kind of female complicity, let alone the easy-going, almost automatic sense of solidarity I used to think was normal. It is actually easier for a woman to establish a friendly relationship with a man than with a woman here, though of course this relationship will often be based on a kind of diffuse flirting (in the English sense; be careful, in French "flirter" necessarily involves intimate physical contact -- something of which my dictionary, once again, fails miserably to inform me).
Of course, this whole system -- and even more so, enjoying it -- is terribly politically incorrect. After barely a year in this country I was in fact rejected by some politically correct Australian friends (ex-friends) because they thought I was adapting too well to French society (and also because I was letting my hair grow long, although this was more because I couldn't afford to go to the hairdresser than because I was succumbing to the dominant paradigm). I admit that now, seven years down the track, I am so used to having doors held open for me that when I come back to Sydney I get hit by them as they close... Sure, French society is sexist. But cultural differences do not always fit simply onto a scale of more or less sexist, more or less correct. Remember that the French, whatever their failings, have had a female Prime Minister, and that a higher proportion of French women have careers than Australian women. Think again about why all that Aussie female bonding traditionally happens in the kitchen. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, being very fond of a good kitchen myself: but perhaps we should think twice about using a simple linear scale to evaluate sexism.