Sans Makeup, S'il Vous Plaît By ELAINE SCIOLINO New York Times May 25, 2006 PARIS - Chic French women don't wear makeup. At least they pretend not to. Their goal is to glow, with invisible pores and highly polished skin. Too much makeup, French women say, makes a woman seem older, or even worse, as if she makes a living walking the streets. "It really astonishes me the way American women wear so much makeup," said Laura Mercier, the French creator of a line of cosmetics and skin care who lives in New York. "In America, even teenage girls are overly made-up. And when you are overly made-up, you send out the message that you are overly sexual, that you want to be visible to attract men." By contrast, Ms. Mercier said: "French women are not flashy. They must be subtle. The message must not be, 'I'm spending hours on my face to look beautiful.' " Michèle Fitoussi, one of France's leading social commentators and a columnist at French Elle magazine, described the painted-doll look preferred by many American women with one word: "vulgaire." Certainly, the French delight in defining themselves in opposition to America, no matter what the topic food, wine, diplomacy, even beauty. But this attitude is complicated a blend of chauvinism and fascination, perhaps with a touch of envy. The French admire the Americans, even as they criticize and dismiss them. A recent issue of French Elle poked fun at what it called the "too much" look of the "California Beauty," illustrated by a model in a shocking pink shirt, bicycle shorts, an orange print scarf, mirrored sunglasses, a Louis Vuitton handbag and gaudy gold high-heeled sandals, earrings, necklaces, chain belt, bangles and rings. Nicole Richie and Britney Spears have that overdone look, the French say. Madonna is forgiven since she is seen as a hard-nosed businesswoman and free spirit. Jennifer Lopez doesn't count because she is Hispanic and therefore culturally more exotic. But this disdain is aimed less at specific women than at the overall overdone look. This season, the unadorned look is more in vogue than ever in France. The weekly magazine L'Express calls it "Le no makeup" look. French Elle described it this month as "Le bare face," defined as "nude skin, shimmering slightly." To women in France, the too-made-up look represents something more profound than simply one's taste in skin care. It is also the mark of the desperate housewife type who tries too hard. "The most beautiful makeup for a woman is passion" is the famous quotation of the designer Yves Saint Laurent. "But cosmetics are easier to buy." Indeed, at the first "beauty cafe" in Paris, the talk is about respect, not transformation. For two hours on four recent evenings, the Columbus Café a rival of Starbucks transformed the second floor of its outlet near the Bastille into a place where women came for free lessons about skin care. "Today beauty is not something only on the surface," Sandra Renzi, a cosmetologist with the Darphin skin care line, lectured to women over coffee and Perrier one evening. "It also comes from inside. Essential oils that contain tiny molecules that penetrate your skin must come first." At another session, Sylvie Dutour, a cosmetologist with the Bourjois line, revealed how to respect the eyebrow line and the importance of a lipstick-free mouth if the eyes are shadowed and lined with color. Even for Olivia Hollert, a 22-year-old nurse who considers herself a makeup fanatic, Americans overdo it. "American girls worship the cult of the 'ideal woman,' " she said. "No part of the face seems to be forgotten. And when you use too much makeup, it means you are hiding from yourself." In a 2004 poll by the market research group Mintel, 64 percent of American women said they sometimes use foundation, compared with 47 percent of French women; 81 percent of Americans use lipstick compared with 70 percent of French women and 59 percent of Americans use blusher, compared with 43 percent. The image du jour of "le no makeup" look is Audrey Tautou. One cover of French Elle this month featured Ms. Tautou, 29, the star of "The Da Vinci Code," without jewelry or any visible makeup except for a slight tint on her lips. Even her beauty marks have not been airbrushed away. Inside the magazine, a full-page photo of her in a frizzy black wig with blackened eyes and red satin cocktail dress bears the caption, "The Fiancée of Frankenstein." The French actresses Juliette Binoche and Nathalie Baye are regularly featured in magazines for embracing the natural look. In politics, the Socialist lawmaker Ségolène Royal is busily seducing the country in part because of her grass-roots style, broad smile and fresh-faced look. In some polls on next year's presidential election, she leads the competition. Ms. Royal, 52, who is portrayed as a young politician, wears almost no makeup and brushes her shoulder-length hair often. When she had an upper tooth straightened last year, the daily newspaper Libération labeled it an un-French act. "The French people's favorite Socialist is now endowed with an American smile," Libération wrote. That may be because French women still lag far behind Americans in cosmetic surgery and sundry injections to make them appear less flawed (although they are catching up). Catherine Deneuve, for example, with her apparent facial interventions and painted face, is sometimes seen as an object of pity. Ms. Deneuve, 62, the icily beautiful star of "Belle de Jour," was once considered so perfect that she was named France's "Marianne," the idealized embodiment of the French Republic. The face of Chanel in the 1970's, she recently was named the face of MAC's Icon cosmetics line. She admits to wearing makeup even when gardening. "Poor Catherine," said Terry de Gunzburg, creator of the By Terry makeup line. "She let herself get hooked by the syndrome of Dorian Gray, of eternal youth. It's sad." On the whole, French women like to portray themselves as more balanced, more inclined to pamper themselves and take pleasure in daily rituals than Americans. In its most extreme, America is seen as a youth-obsessed, throwaway, quick-fix culture where women are more likely to look artificially young and totally "done." According to this view, sexuality has to be subtle. "There's always a rapport with the erotic but it's hidden," Ms. Fitoussi said. "The French love mystery, the game of seduction. That's why we respect perfume, why lingerie is so important." (A poll in 2003 concluded that 87 percent of French men and women believe that lingerie is an important part of life.) For Ms. Fitoussi, who wears glasses and little makeup, it's all about choosing. Made-up eyes means wearing neutral lipstick. Red lipstick means dressing in black. "Makeup dates you," she said. "Like a tree." Instead, French women invest more time aiming for perfect, blemish-free skin. If there is an obsession, it is tight pores. Even French women of modest means are much more likely than American women to get treatments in spas or clinics that scrub, polish, buff, massage and cream their skins. The French government is complicit. Any woman who can claim to have a medically diagnosed skin condition, from eczema to acne, can receive a regimented "thermal cure" at spas in France once a year. The French taxpayer covers as much as 65 percent of the cost. Not everyone agrees that the French emphasis on restraint translates into chic and beautiful women. "In France, women think they know better than others," Ms. de Gunzburg said. "There is a self-sufficiency, an attitude of 'I don't give a damn what you're telling me.' "Tell me who's chic here in France? Give me one example. Women don't make any effort here." Frenchmen, meanwhile, (who are getting their faces creamed and polished more often) are quick to say they don't like women whose skin color rubs off on their clothes or who look as if they have smeared their lips with tinted Vaseline. That sentiment is not new. The narrator of Marcel Proust's 1927 novel, "Finding Time Again," makes the obviously painted and powdered Gilberte a bit pathetic. "I sensed that, despite myself, I was staring at her in my curiosity to discover what it was about her that was so changed," the narrator says. "This curiosity was, however, soon satisfied when she wiped her nose, despite all the precautions she employed. From all the colors which remained on the handkerchief, turning it into a rich palette, I saw that she was entirely made-up." Maïa de La Baume contributed reporting for this article.