Among the good things I did while in lockdown in France, I finally subscribed to The Times. I read it every day on my phone and I love it. A few days ago, after reading countless articles about coronavirus, I stumbled on a feature by the Times’ correspondent in France entitled Why single French women love the lockdown. What an interesting theory, I thought.
Then the images illustrating the article gave it all away: this was going to be riddled with outdated clichés of sex-craved French women, basking on a balcony with a view on the Eiffel Tower, eating croissants freshly delivered to their door while looking incredibly thin. Let me tell you one thing: I have never met these women. I, for one, do not correspond one bit to this fantasy that we are selling too: I’m big, black, and my experience of accommodation in Paris intra muros is a 16 square meter flat on the fourth floor with a view on a very busy boulevard, that I paid 630 euros per month. Croissants not included.
The novelty, the feature’s author claims, is that thanks for the 8-week lockdown, single French women discovered that – sit down, this is going to be a shocker – they don’t have to be in a relationship with a man! The author seemed, frankly, quite baffled. « Commentators wondered how they would survive without male company », he writes. I am married to a wonderful man, but even to me, this is ludicrous.
So I’ve been talking to three of my girlfriends: Marine, Emmanuelle and Faustine, all single and in their 30s. They all agreed on one thing: the Times’ article was cringy.
I met Marine 13 years ago now: we were freshers in classes préparatoires in Orléans. She is happily single and earns her living by giving makeup advice to clients in a cosmetics shop in central Paris. She lives in a 27 square meter studio on the seventh floor (with elevator – phew) in the suburbs south of the French capital. « I only have one window », she told me on the phone a few days ago, « but it didn’t feel like cramped during the lockdown. What was strange was sitting down all the time, because I usually stand all day at work ». Marine was one of the millions of French employees on furlough. I asked her what she missed the most. « My friends and family, obviously, and the feeling of being touched. Not necessarily in a romantic way but just hugging someone. » However, it wasn’t an obsessive thought, and she didn’t try to meet people during the lockdown.
There were many opportunities though, as some men on the dating app she uses were quite pushy. « Someone asked if maybe we could sext each other… I subsequently deleted the app from my phone », she said, dryly. She decided that she actually didn’t want to force herself to continue dating virtually during the lockdown. « I already knew I didn’t need a man to be happy », she explains, « but I have really learned to listen to myself and not give myself this pressure to date. I just didn’t want to do it ». Yet, she made a connection with someone who messaged her on the app. She wrote back after seeing a notification, and they have been talking ever since. « It was great, and I didn’t fear meeting him because we couldn’t anyway. We had no expectations. » She says they should meet in person soon.
Another friend, Emmanuelle, had a different experience in lockdown: she was busy all week working from home. But like Marine, men, dating, and relationships were the least of her worries. « I honestly didn’t fear to live on my own », she explains. « At the start of the lockdown, it was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks. That’s nothing. And yet, I could see numerous stories about how single people would feel if we weren’t able to have one-night stands. I was made to feel that I wasn’t normal because I didn’t want to f*ck around. Nobody talked about the non-romantic or non-sexual solitude we could be experiencing », she regretted.
Emmanuelle is one of the most independent people I have ever met: she has no problem going on holiday, seeing exhibitions or films at the cinema on her own. « I love joining friends when they do stuff », she explains, « but I won’t necessarily need them to join me to do anything ». Her independence, and the fact that she doesn’t want to rush into a relationship just for the sake of coupling up, has often raised eyebrows. « I constantly have to justify my status as a single woman. People assume I’ve had my heart broken, or something is seriously suspicious. I’m good, I swear! »
Faustine (I changed her name), whom I met when we were finishing our journalism master’s degree at La Sorbonne, also feels this pressure, from her parents, her neighbours and her friends. It’s so much harder because she doesn’t have a stable income allowing her to afford her own place, so she stays with her mother not very far from where I live, in the suburbs east of Paris. « Obviously, I want to meet someone, but I don’t miss being in a relationship. What I really want right now is my own flat », she explains. She thinks the lockdown changed her a lot, even though she still had to go to work several times a week, and met people outside her household as a consequence. « It forced me to face myself and to think about different options that could be available for me, regarding accommodation in Paris, or the wider region, or elsewhere in the country, even abroad. I couldn’t flee myself anymore. My self-esteem improved ».
Talking to Marine, Emmanuelle and Faustine was a breath of fresh air, and it made me realise how lucky I was to have such fierce friends, who have freed themselves from the obligation of being in a relationship. I’ll think of them when I listen to this poem, The Girls by Leyla Josephine, an incredible poet from Glasgow, again, for the tenth time today.