They can replace hands and even lungs. They can fit pacemakers. But they can’t do a damn thing about hot flushes,’ laments the female lead in the new French film Aurore, or I Got Life! to give it its English title. My first reaction on hearing this was: ‘Do French women even have hot flushes?’
I moved to France almost 18 years ago and unlike Aurore, the 50-year-old menopausal star of the film, my French friends have never suddenly ripped off their T-shirts to cool down in mid-flush, or, now I come to think of it, ever mentioned ‘la ménopause’.
For them it is just a physical function that was best kept private or even ignored. Until now. Because this spring a spate of French films, on release in both France and Britain, including I Got Life! and Let The Sunshine In (which sees Juliette Binoche searching for another shot at love at a time most women go through the menopause) have made the change a rather — pardon the pun — hot topic.
In cafes and restaurants, on radio and TV, French women (and men) are talking openly for the first time about the menopause and what it means in France.
Helena Frith Powell revealed the differences in attitude over menopause between French and British women. Actress Agnes Jaoui, 53, (pictured) claims French women don’t stop being sexy as they age
And it’s clear that the attitude across the Channel is very different from our own.
For while in England women sometimes seem to see the end of their fertility as the end of life as a sexual being, in France this stage in a woman’s life is often about shaking things up — having more sex, not less.
The catapulting into public view of Brigitte Macron must surely have contributed to reframing the conversation about older women and sex. While she may not be the most popular first lady, with her leather leggings and ultra-short skirts she is, at 64, unapologetically aiming for a sexy aesthetic rather than a demure one.
A Parisian friend of mine, whose children were at the school where Brigitte Macron taught, says she will never forget the first time she met her. ‘We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing tight leather trousers and stilettos and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. I have no idea at all what she said, I was mesmerised. It is not the kind of school where teachers wear leather trousers! But she looked incredible.’
Mme Macron is not alone in refusing to equate her more mature years with a more sedate approach to life.
A 55-year-old French friend of mine called Marie-France says the menopause has made her ‘feel better than I have done in years, more at ease with myself and looking forward to my future’.
She recently got divorced from her husband of 22 years. Their marriage had been a sham for a long time, but they stayed together for the sake of the children. Once the kids left home they decided to split up and sell their apartment in central Paris.
With the proceeds, Marie-France bought a home in her native Toulouse as well as a pied-a-terre in Barcelona.
‘There are two of me now,’ she tells me. ‘The divorced mother who lives in Toulouse, where she welcomes her family home, and the woman who spends her weekends alone in Barcelona. I know which one has more fun.’
Marie-France says she feels lucky her menopause coincided with her divorce. ‘I think within the confines of a barren, dull marriage it might have really affected me badly. As it was, it was part of a new direction in my life and spurred me on to greater things.’
Late romance: Juliette Binoche and Nicolas Duvauchelle (pictured) in new film Let The Sunshine In. Chantal, 51, claims she is now having the best sex of her life
Her symptoms are, in the main, hot flushes, so she always carries an Evian spray in her bag. She also gets her doctor to prescribe an oestrogen gel called Oestrodose — HRT in gel form — which she applies daily.
French women are extremely open to HRT. Every single friend in France I spoke to about the menopause said she was either taking it or would do when the time came.
Unlike us Brits. The number of British women taking HRT has more than halved since a major 2002 study linked it to an increased risk of breast cancer.
Dr Anna Marie Olsen works for French dermatology guru Dr Jean-Louis Sebagh, who has offices in Paris and London. She sums it up: ‘The difference is that European women are more open to bio-identical hormone therapy and that does make a difference.’
The fact that age is no barrier to sexiness in France means that, for most women, the menopause has little or no bearing on a woman’s desire to be attractive (and attracted to) others. I remember once chatting to a lady who was buying underwear in Galeries Lafayette in Paris. I guess she was in her mid-60s. I asked her why she bought lingerie. ‘To be sexy,’ she replied.
It’s very important to French women that we don’t stop being sexy at 50. Even if we’re having a discreet hot flush – Actress Agnes Jaoui, 53
The simple fact is that sex is not linked to fertility in French culture. In fact, according to Chantal, a married friend who is going through the menopause, lack of fertility can actually make you feel better about sex. ‘Having sex for the sake of having sex has made me feel young again,’ she says.
That sentiment is echoed by the psychologist and therapist Marie de Hennezel, who has written a book called A Frenchwoman’s Guide to Sex After Sixty. ‘The heart does not age,’ she says. ‘Try to think about the body you are, not the body you have. Develop your ability to be erotic and seductive. An inner youthfulness can be sexier than youth itself.’
Chantal agrees. ‘At 51 I am now having the best sex of my life. I look back on my younger self and almost feel sorry for her with all her angst and insecurity.’
It’s not all plain sailing though. ‘There was one rather embarrassing moment when I had a hot flush in bed,’ she says, ‘but I put it down to our exertions.’
Helena Frith Powell revealed hot flushes are one of the most common complaints of menopausal women (file image)
‘We French have a relationship to sexuality that is very different from other countries,’ Agnes Jaoui, the 53-year-old star of Aurore, tells me.
‘French women are lucky — it’s very important to us that we don’t stop being sexy at 30, 40, 50. Just because we see a woman having a discreet hot flush or forgetting her words, it doesn’t make her less interesting. You can still be a sexual being.’
Agnes, who is divorced and lives in Paris with her two teenage children, says she had no idea about the menopause until she experienced it herself.
‘I didn’t realise the menopause is like a second adolescence. It’s exactly like when we are teenagers! I had no idea that my hormones would be everywhere. My doctor advised me to take HRT because it helps you be in better shape when you’re older.
But while French women generally don’t like to discuss the menopause, they will talk to their pharmacist.
My local pharmacienne says the two most common symptoms she hears menopausal women complain about are hot flushes and weight gain — and in the treasure trove that is a French pharmacy there are pills aplenty that can tackle those.
One brand is Acthéane, which contains a cocktail of ingredients including arnica and glonoinum, a nitroglycerine, and claims to ‘ease menopausal discomfort’. Another popular brand is Ménophytea, which targets hot flushes with herbal ingredients including hop extract, flaxseed and chicory.
Researchers believe the higher your BMI, the worse your menopausal symptoms will be. Weight gain is also common for women during menopause (file image)
Similarly, a discreet enquiry will lead to PH-balancing, soap-free intimate washes and gels to deal with one of the most unpleasant effects of menopause, the fact that sex can become a little uncomfortable — though this, according to another friend, is ‘always the husband’s fault!’
And there’s no French skincare brand that doesn’t have an anti-rougeur (anti-redness) cream within its range — and an SPF 50, which, according to Dr Anna Marie Olsen, is essential for dealing with the three major areas of concern in menopausal skin: enlarged, visible pores, pigmentation and crepey skin. ‘You need to use it every day, not just in summer,’ she warns.
My pharmacist says that actually a lot of French women are blissfully unaware that the menopause is happening, due to their choice of contraception.
The coil, which is more common in France than in the UK, according to a UN report, can hide the symptoms of menopause by lessening the frequency of periods or even stopping them altogether, as well as releasing hormones.
The hormonal coil releases progesterone, which naturally falls during the menopause. Some contraceptive pills and implants can have a similar effect.
French menopause expert Dr Jean-Claude Houdret, advises women who react well to HRT to continue using it (file image)
My pharmacist says: ‘Once you find a method of contraception that works, while you are peri-menopausal (pre-menopausal) there is no need to change it, even if its main function changes from contraception to hormone replacement. It can really make the transition much smoother.’
Another reason why so many French women look and feel as if they glide through the menopause could be the fact that many of them have spent the past 40 years watching their weight.
Research suggests that the higher your BMI is (body mass index, relating weight to height), the worse your menopausal symptoms will be, especially hot flushes and joint pain.
The French obsession with weight is well documented, which may explain why, in addition to what they can find in the pharmacy, women who do experience the effects of the menopause look to their diet for a remedy.
My friend Marie-France swears by the gâteau pour la menopause, a cake made with seeds, ginger and nuts that is stuffed full of dietary oestrogens. She also avoids salt to reduce water retention and eats lots of green, leafy vegetables.
Agnes (pictured) believes women do not become ‘invisible’ over 50 in France
Others turn to Dr Jean-Claude Houdret, a Parisian weight-loss and anti-ageing specialist, and his book Bien Vivre sa Ménopause (Live Well During Menopause). His advice to the mainly high-end clients who visit him complaining of bouffées de chaleur — yes, even their hot flushes sound glamorous — is to use mainly natural methods. ‘Hydrotherapy, aromatherapy and, above all, herbal remedies will all restore equilibrium,’ he says.
Whichever methods they choose to deal with menopause, discretion has always been key for French women. When, in the new film, Aurore says the word ‘menopause’ in her ex-husband’s presence, he covers his ears and makes a silly noise. French men do still like their women to be mysterious, sexy and on a pedestal. Which is one more reason this film is so groundbreaking.
Another French friend, Sophie, said that when she went to see her doctor about dealing with the symptoms of menopause, his main piece of advice was not to discuss it with her husband.
Perhaps this refusal to acknowledge the menopause explains in part why French women seem to have an easier time navigating it. Rather than giving in to hot flushes and accepting that, in the words of an English friend of mine ‘the war is over’, they are treating this ‘certain age’ as a golden age, full of possibilities.
‘Women joke that we have a superpower after 50,’ says Agnes Jaoui — ‘that we become invisible. But it’s not true in France.’
What do France’s top experts advise?
By French menopause expert Dr Jean-Claude Houdret, author of Live Well During Menopause.
In general the menopause happens between the ages of 45 and 55. Sometimes it comes on immediately — one day periods just stop, then it’s over. Other times it happens over a period of months or even a year where your periods are irregular and you miss a month.
Some women don’t have any trouble at all. Others may have several symptoms such as hot flushes (often at night), nervousness, irritability and sometimes depression.
HRT gives women a great deal of comfort because not only are they managing the menopausal symptoms but they have better skin and fewer wrinkles — it actually slows the ageing process.
I would suggest that those women who react well to HRT should stay with it, but those who are newly menopausal should try phytotherapy, which is the science-based use of medicinal herbs.
There are two plant-based pills that I recommend to my patients, Menosun and Menestro. The latter has some soya in it, which we know to be effective [as it contains plant compounds that mimic oestrogen] but should be avoided in large quantities. [Too much soya has been linked to thyroid dysfunction and cognitive decline.] Menestro also contains sage [which has been shown to relieve night sweats], thyme and yam [which is particularly good for hot flushes, mood swings and insomnia].
Menosun has no soya but contains seeds from the African plant griffonia, hawthorn and a medicinally potent brown berry called chasteberry, which can help balance the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone.
Other treatments include hydrotherapy and aromatherapy using products to target the individual symptoms.
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (£8.99, Gibson Square) by Helena Frith Powell is out now. Let the Sunshine In is in cinemas nationwide. I Got Life! (Aurore), is released on DVD on June 1.