Excerpt: 'La Seduction' by Elaine Sciolino
The first time my hand was kissed à la française was in the Napoléon III salon of the Élysée Palace. The one doing the kissing was the president of France.
In the fall of 2002, Jacques Chirac was seven years into his twelve-year presidency. The Bush administration was moving toward war with Iraq, and the relationship between France and the United States was worse than it had been in decades. I had just become the Paris bureau chief for the New York Times. Chirac was receiving me and the Times’s foreign editor, Roger Cohen, to make what he hoped would be a headline-grabbing announcement of a French-led strategy to avoid war. When we arrived that Sunday morning, Chirac shook hands with Roger and welcomed me with a baisemain, a kiss of the hand.
The ritual—considered old-fashioned nowadays by just about everyone under the age of sixty—was traditionally a ceremonial, sacred gesture; its history can be traced to ancient Greece and Rome. In the Middle Ages, a vassal paid homage to his lord by kissing his hand. By the nineteenth century, hand kissing had been reinvented to convey a man’s gallantry and politesse toward a woman. Those men who still practice it today are supposed to know and follow the rules: never kiss a gloved hand or the hand of a young girl; kiss the hand only of a married woman, and do so only indoors.
Chirac reached for my right hand and cradled it as if it were a piece of porcelain from his private art collection. He raised it to the level of his chest, bent over to meet it halfway, and inhaled, as if to savor its scent. Lips made contact with skin.
The kiss was not an act of passion. This was not at all like the smoldering scene in Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way in which the narrator “blindly, hotly, madly” seizes and kisses the hand offered to him by a lady in pink. Still, the kiss was unsettling. Part of me found it charming and flattering. But in an era when women work so hard to be taken seriously, I also was vaguely uncomfortable that Chirac was adding a personal dimension to a professional encounter and assuming I would like it. This would not have happened in the United States. It was, like so much else in France, a subtle but certain exercise in seduction.
As a politician, Chirac naturally incorporated all of his seductive skills, including his well-practiced baisemain, into his diplomatic style. He kissed the hand of Laura Bush when she came to Paris to mark the return of the United States to UNESCO; she turned her face away as if to prevent giving him the satisfaction of her smile. He kissed the hand of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—twice in one visit. He kissed the hand of Angela Merkel the day after she became Germany’s chancellor, fondling it in both hands; she repaid him by announcing the importance of a “friendly, intensive” relationship with France.
It turned out that Chirac was too ardent a hand kisser. Catherine Colonna, who was Chirac’s spokeswoman, told me later that he did not adhere to proper form. “He was a great hand kisser, but I was not satisfied that his baisemains were strictly executed according to the rules of French savoir faire,” she said. “The kiss is supposed to hover in the air, never land on the skin.” If Chirac knew this, he was not letting it get in the way of a tactic that was working for him.