If cleanliness is next to godliness, then the French – and especially French women – are among the most saintly in Europe, according to a 2010 study.
Confounding certain longstanding negative stereotypes, a survey by US consulting firm United Minds for Tena (a Swedish manufacturer of personal hygiene products) found that 97% of women in France feel ill at ease going out without having washed their hands or brushed their teeth, compared to 84% of Germans.
And 94% of them feel uncomfortable leaving the house if they have not showered, as opposed to only 74% of women in Britain.
The poll also found that the French dedicate more time to the pursuit of cleanliness, with French men spending 35 minutes a day on attending to personal hygiene and women taking an average of 46 minutes – more than all other European countries.
It was not always thus: of those surveyed in France, 42% of men and 45% of women said they are more attentive to their cleanliness now than they were a decade ago.
A historically negative image
According to historian Georges Vigarello, a specialist in hygiene, the recent improvements are down to a growing conception that people are defined by their bodies, rather than by what they do with them.
But this does not explain why the French have suffered from a somewhat negative reputation in terms of their personal hygiene practices, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries.
Vigarello conceded that historically there was a grain of truth to these assumptions, but noted that it applied only to the poorer classes and “not to the nobility or the bourgeoisie”.
“If you compare London and Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, the hygiene situation for the poor and the working classes was equally deplorable,” he told FRANCE 24.
“But in England, the development of a decent water supply infrastructure happened much earlier than in France, so ordinary people in British cities began to wash more. A visitor to France in the mid- to late 19th century would have noticed the difference.”
For Vigarello, the good news is that standards have improved everywhere.
“Even if the French are slightly ahead, the standards of personal hygiene in the 21st century are pretty much the same in all European countries,” he said.