How to be Parisienne: The Simones

Anna Hollingsworth 7 June 2016

All Parisiennes are inspired by ‘Simone’: one of the three Simones who shine through in France’s history and in Parisiennes’ DNA. Every Parisienne is a Simone Veil, Simone de Beauvoir, or Simone Signoret. Finding your Simone is akin to finding your house in Harry Potter; it’s the family to whom you belong. In order to be parisienne I have to find my Simone.

My research begins with Simone de Beauvoir. I scour the internet, reading biographies and interviews. An intellectual. She excelled in her studies and her writing, remembered for her many philosophical publications, particularly Le Deuxième Sexe. This outlining of women’s subjugation would earn her an enduring position as a leader of feminist thought.

I feel the power of her mind. Yet, all biographies and my manual highlight the significance in her life of her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. She loved, but was independent and successful. My guide suggests her mantra:

“She did not try to make others happy; she selfishly delighted in the pleasure of giving pleasure.”

To accompany my research I decide to visit a Parisian place of significance for each Simone. For de Beauvoir I turn up at the Sorbonne, her alma mater. The grand building is imposing. I stare at its beauty and my own imagined fantasies of the great ideas and minds within.

Simone Veil is a feminist too. She is also a survivor, having been imprisoned in Auschwitz-Birkenau. A politician who, when appointed Minister of Health, became France’s first woman member of cabinet. She doggedly fought for women’s rights, best known for having been at the core of legalising abortion in France. She later became the first woman president of the European Parliament. She is a fighter. It is her strength that impresses upon me most deeply.

I visit France’s National Assembly. Gazing at the huge columns and grand statues, I almost shrink. It stinks of patriarchy. It chokes me with its gaudy virility. Then I think of Veil, and the black and white photos of her debating on the assembly floor. Her strength could make these columns crumble. My manual suggests her mantra:

“My demand as a woman is that my difference be taken into account and that I not be forced to adapt to the male model.”

At first glance, Simone Signoret appears to cater for the Parisienne’s style. Indeed, Signoret lends such a pathway: famous, glamorous and talented, she became the first French woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress. A film star. However, she was also a left-wing activist who fought for social justice. I’m as fascinated by her social activism as I am by her artistic talent. Defiant against society’s expectations, she allowed herself to age naturally, unashamed of the effects of time. She knew her own mind and body to the end. Nevertheless, both the biographies and my manual emphasise her relationship with husband Yves Montand. She fell madly in love and never fell out, despite his affairs. Signoret didn’t harbour bitterness, nor did she lose her husband, who today rests by her side in Paris’ Père Lachaise Cemetery. Her love was unwavering, even through her suffering.

I visit her and Yves’ home. The beautiful little square is a peaceful oasis right in the heart of Paris. It’s a far cry from the supposed glitz of stardom. My manual suggests her mantra:

“The secret to happiness in love is not being blind, but knowing when to close your eyes.”

I thought there would be a clear favourite, that I would read a little and know which Simone was my Simone. But the more you know the less you know. I like all these women. A philosopher, a politician, and an actress. Thinking, doing, and creating. But which Simone is mine?

I feel connected to Signoret’s balancing her love for the arts with activist causes. But her capacity to love? To be that intense, to be so taken, to suffer and forgive so much? Perhaps I will know this one day, but for now Signoret possesses something that leaves a little distance between us.

I incline towards de Beauvoir as I read of her independence in thought and action and her inspiring feminist theory. Her suggested mantra particularly delights me. However, the visit to the Sorbonne is dissuading, precisely for having reminded me of a teenage girl in awe of Cambridge. This world of academia and theory is impressive, but in the end it’s not me.

And so there’s Veil. I am struck by her ability to fight against all odds and expectations, to survive and flourish through every obstacle. I admire her. But am I her? Sadly not. Simone Veil is in many ways who I’d like to be, not who I currently am. The Simone within should be the Simone with whom you identify. I have not done or been through what Simone Veil has, but I do think there’s a fighter in there, deep down. At the very least, there’s an acute obstinacy. I don’t want to be ‘forced to adapt to the male model’ and I don’t want to apologise for it.

I will put quotes and photos of all these women up on my wall but for my especial Simone I choose the woman who gave French women the right to choose.