Is there a particularly French idea about l'amour? Political analyst Agnes Poirier thinks so. She feels compelled to defend it, she wrote in an opinion piece in The New York Times last week, because she and other Parisians are fed up with tourist love-birds who in recent years have taken to putting padlocks on - and defacing - some of Paris' most iconic bridges as symbols of their undying love. Can anything be more unromantic and anti-love, she asks, than a padlock?
"At the heart of love a la francaise lies the idea of freedom," she writes. "To love truly is to want the other free."
Well, didn't Sting of the British band Police sing "If you love somebody, set them free"?
Poirier's idea of love seems to have come straight out of James Cameron's Titanic, not France. In the film, the hero Jack sacrifices himself so that Rose would not only survive the shipwreck but become a free spirit. Interestingly, Poirier cites the famous lifelong relationship between Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir - with their multiple sex partners - as the ideal French love.
Umm, didn't De Beauvoir, in her memoirs, confess to feeling hurt and wounded, like any jealous woman? But, as an existential philosopher and pioneering feminist, she could not reproach Sartre like a wronged woman would an unfaithful lover. She had to accept his philandering as an exercise in freedom and as the price for keeping her man. Of all people, De Beauvoir knew all about bondage, and padlocks and chains. After all, she wrote that famous essay "Must we burn Sade?" which rehabilitated the father of sadism as a key figure of French literature.
Poirier imagined a critic asking whether Sartre wasn't exactly like scandal-plagued Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief. No, she said, because DSK's lifestyle was "sordid"; it "tarnished the French concept of love … the realm of love as liberty". Well, if Sartre were alive in this age of sexual correctness, he too might face lawsuits for sexual harassment or worse; and in 1950s Paris, DSK would have happily philandered and plundered his way from bedroom to bedroom.
Somehow the nation that gives us French kisses, ménage à trois and le petit mort must be a bit more sophisticated than the way Poirier has represented it.