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Valentine's Day à la française

A couple kisses at the Trocadero Esplanade, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2018, in Paris.
A couple kisses at the Trocadero Esplanade, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, on Valentine's Day, February 14, 2018, in Paris. ALAIN JOCARD / AFP

France has the reputation of being the world's most romantic country. Paris is the city of love, after all, and particularly on Valentine's Day, when loved-up couples swarm the capital for a French kiss beneath the Eiffel Tower. But beyond the hype, do French people really care about la Saint-Valentin?

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It is the most romantic holiday of the year, but for French men like Jacques De Guillebon, Valentine's Day "has lost all meaning".

"It is little more than a commercial venture," the author of the Nouvel Ordre Amoureux, or "New Love Order", tells RFI. "Why do we only celebrate love on [14 February], why not everyday?"

Now heavily commercialised and laden with expectation, the annual event was once a day where people earnestly showed their love for another person.

The oldest known valentine was a poem written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans, to his wife while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Valentine's Day was celebrated for centuries before that. But in France, it only really became popular in the 19th century.

Despite the late celebrations, Christophe Girard, Paris' deputy-mayor insists that "French people care about love."

Love is in the air

"When you look at movies, paintings, poetry or music, love is everywhere," he tells RFI.

Numerous films over the years like French Kiss, Amélie and Midnight in Paris have embedded a certain rosy idea of the France that’s hard to shake.

They have also helped to instil in the collective imagination an image of the French as being the best lovers in the world.

"When I first came to France, I was confronted with the quintessential French dragueur, or womaniser," says Franco-Colombian journalist Melissa Barra.

Having grown up in Colombia, Barra says she was accustomed to the machism of Latino-American men, but found the French "more subtle" in their approach and less inclined to "play up their sexual prowess".

Who cares about Valentine's Day?

"It's a little overrated," says the 29-year-old, who shares her birthday with Cupid.

"In my generation of millennials, there are two camps. On the one hand, there are those for whom Valentine's Day is unimportant, while others follow celebrities on Instagram for the latest tips and advice on how to celebrate it."

The invasion of social media has altered the way we celebrate love, creating more artificial relationships, to the dismay of deputy-mayor Girard.

"I think in these speedy times and world of social networks it's good to slow down and take the time to express your feelings to someone," he reckons.

Valentine's Day "is a day I send a personal message to my kids, my family. It doesn't matter if you’re straight, gay or bisexual. We are reminded of the importance of what’s beautiful in life: love and friendship," he says.

Elsewhere, feminist mum Stephanie Lamy celebrates the annual event with her teenage daughter, who failed to get a valentine this year.

"For me, Valentine's Day is about self-love," she tells RFI. "I teach my daughters that the most important love they will ever receive is the love that they give themselves.

"If they get love from elsewhere, then it's sprinkles on the cake," she adds. "The most important part is to love yourself. The rest will come."

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