France is going through a sexual civil war. After the great carnal outburst of the free-loving soixante-huitards, some have reverted to abstinence and prudishness, while others are pushing sexuality to new extremes.
The crisis in French sexuality has exposed itself this summer as the clothes have come off. It’s not always a pretty sight, and not just because it isn’t true that French people don’t get fat. Major confusion on the shifting boundaries of corporal and sexual expression has grown into a peculiar conflict, exposing a national sexual neurosis.
On one side of this conflict is France’s army of traditional naturists: a largely aging clan who revel in the freedom, classlessness and wholesome pleasures of a nudity that they claim has nothing to do with sex at all. They are at war with libertines, voyeurs, exhibitionists, habituées of clubs échangistes and people from the dodgier ends of the internet, who have emerged from the shadows to disport themselves in the blazing sun and taken advantage of the season to turn many French beaches into what the appalled here call une baie des cochons. Traditional naturist camping sites and holiday villages are hiring security guards to watch out for dubious characters.
The naturism industry is said to be worth about €250 million to the French economy, although I suspect it’s really much more. It attracts tourists from all over Europe, including plenty of Brits. But the boundaries between traditional nude beaches and libertine beaches are sometimes blurred. Last month near Lyon, on a sandy lakeside, a 75-year-old traditional nudist became so enraged by a man, 46, masturbating in front of a woman that he pulled a carbine out of his beach bag and shot him dead.
Naturists are not only at war with the libertines but also now challenged by a cult within naturism calling themselves les nudiens, which seeks to normalise a state of liberty, equality and nudity in public spaces. Some are even attempting to rebrand exhibitionism as green. ‘We’re no longer motivated by health or sport but by ecology and the desire to live differently by shedding the dictates of society,’ explains one militant.
Museums in Paris have thrown open their doors to nudists and at least one restaurant has offered naked dining. A recent TV series, Naked, posited that nudity had become compulsory in France. It was awful but got gigantic ratings.
Les nudiens even have designs on one of France’s hallowed brands, the Tour de France. Several prefects moved last month to halt an unofficial Tour de France naked bike ride. The riders intend to rally hundreds of naked local cyclists wherever they go. The naturist establishment is not impressed.
Alongside the struggle between the various naked people, there’s a parallel struggle to control the nude economy. Traditional nudist venues have been almost wearily wholesome. Not so the quartiers naturistes that dot the coastline with naked nightclubs, naked supermarkets and massage parlours.
Libertine nightclubs have been attacked in Cap d’Agde, France’s largest nudist resort. Implausibly, this was attributed to arson by hardline traditionalists, ‘mullahs of chaste nudity’. More probably, it was the work of criminal gangs settling scores. A local police official has described Cap d’Agde as ‘the biggest bordello in Europe’.
In recent years, the growth in French nudism is claimed to have come not from the expected hordes of the aged and drooping but from the young. They are, according to the French Federation of Naturists, the majority of the more than half a million nudists who have swelled the ranks of the great unclothed in the past decade, with around a third now under 30. I frankly don’t believe this. The average age of naked people at Cap d’Agde appears to be 50. Over the past decade the number of French women willing to sunbathe topless has fallen by a third.
Whether or not the young are keen on getting it off, they are decidedly less enthusiastic about getting it on. Boomer sexual freedom has been followed by a new era of prudishness in which the youth appear to have swapped actual sex for naked selfies. Over the past 12 months, 43 per cent of France’s youth had not had sex; in the UK, it’s 25 per cent. The Swinging Sixties it is not. Yet three-quarters of French teenagers have admitted sexting. Millions of adolescents are teasing each other with nude selfies but holding back from the act itself. France has taken an almost Germanic turn: a growing proclivity for nudity united with a kind of sexlessness. It’s a peculiar reality, not unique to France but strange for a country so renowned for its carnal fixations yet now gripped by pornification as a substitute.
Sociologists and journalists are revelling in this. Le Monde says ‘boys are filled with anxiety, fear of shame and humiliation, the pressure of virility’. It’s not just boys or the young who seem terrified of sex, though. The new sexual politics and two years locked down have ‘stopped the fingers at the moment of unhooking the bra’, as they say here. Before Covid hit, French people claimed to be having sex six times per month, down from nine in 2007. They were not only having less sex, they told pollsters, but enjoying it less too.
If a topless Brigitte Bardot defined la révolution sexuelle, today the counter-revolution is defined by the burkini, which is absurdly banned almost everywhere here as an Islamist provocation. Given some of the spectacles on offer on French beaches this summer, there’s a case for making this modest head-to-toe swimwear compulsory for all.
So are the French still at it like rabbits, or have they reverted to the position of ‘no sex please, we’re French’? Probably a bit of both. Some seem more militant than ever in their carnal pursuits and they are highly visible, especially during this long summer. But many are becoming more prudish. What’s evident is if you go down to the beach this summer, you may be in for a big surprise.