Are the French losing their touch when it comes to seducing members of the opposite sex? Well, if the proliferation of books, DVDs and now even seduction schools is anything to go by, many feel they need help.
A sunny afternoon outside the Pompidou Centre art museum in Paris. Nicolas breaks into a run. He and his "coach" have spied a target. Sparkly T-shirt at two o'clock.
"Excuse me," he says, "I've just seen you and I think that with that T-shirt with sequins on you must be a gold-digger or something! Your style is really not bad!"
Listening in thanks to a discreet microphone clipped to Nicolas' shirt, seduction coach Alex Roth stares blankly in front of him. This isn't the first time he's heard one of his students make a hash of it.
"That's kind," says the girl. "But I have a lover."
Roth shrugs. Rejection's okay. Toughens you up. What's not okay is not daring to have a go. He's been there himself. That's why he founded his company Lifestyle Conseil four years ago.
"When I was younger I was kind of obese," he explains. "I was kind of lonely, not so many friends. And one day I said, 'Alright. I am going to lose some weight, go out, make some friends … have a girlfriend.' It was quite a hard job, but now I can help other men to do the same. Because I did the job before."
The goal is to turn the timid, the burbling and the clumsy, the crass, the mute and the downright creepy into what Lifestyle Conseil considers to be the winning combination: the "gentleman bastard."
Suave but determined, well-mannered but carnivorous - like the seducer-heroes who are the pride of French literature and French cinema.
For instance, in the films of the Nouvelle Vague, the movie genre pioneered by Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard - around half of these movies are about picking up women in the street and are full of great chat-up lines like, "You shouldn't read with the book so close to your face. You've got very, very pretty eyes and that could damage them."
And to awaken your inner-gentleman bastard, what could be better than Dangerous Liaisons or Moliere's Don Juan?
Seduction was something French men were good at while those of other nations one might think of had to drink for several hours before saying hello.
But is it still true of the French today?
Down in Paris's Luxemburg Garden, hunting ground for seducers past and present, I went to find out by asking French women to describe their suitors' best and worst attempts of to woo them.
The result? Good news. Like the pain of childbirth, crass pick-up attempts are things women are programmed to forget. They only remember the good ones.
For example. There was the girl out with a friend in a bar where they show the rugby on a big screen TV. (Possibly very-slightly on the look-out with that choice of bar, but anyway…) And this bloke comes along and says "Biarritz won!" … "He had such a nice smile," she said. Not much of a nutcracker for a not very hard nut.
But there's also a bit of inventiveness out there. The man who managed to chat up a woman from the other side of a shop window for example. Very French with the Marcel Marceau mimes. Or the one who went up to a girl who was waiting for her friend and said "I'm sorry I'm late." Takes a bit of thinking about, but this is clever French stuff.
Helps to be good-looking
I have a friend who met the mother of his child while working as a waiter. She was a customer. Out with friends. Under each dish he brought to the table for her, he left her a written note. By the time they got to desert she was, as they say over here, conquered.
And then there's Stephan. An old friend of my wife's. And, no, they didn't, but thank you for asking. He's a dog trainer by profession. Not really a lady-killer job you might think. Though there are one or two nice-looking labradors that might disagree. Stephan, though, is a 'seducteur extraordinaire'. In the street, in bars, in shops… wherever they might go, they cannot hide from Stephan.
He is, it must be said, pretty good-looking. Tall, slim, stubbly. But above all he has what a French girlfriend of mine once called "a bedroom voice."
Deep, warm, calm, soft. Definitely the sort of thing you need when you're un-hooking a bra-strap.
His advice? Be natural. Although that may not work so well as it does for Stephan if you are, say, ugly, fat and stupid.
Any other advice then? "The roles of men and women are a little confused nowadays," he says. "But a lot of women tell me they like romantic stuff. Someone who talks to them in the street… flowers … they like it. And many men have forgotten this."
Chat up lines? "OK, sometimes if a woman resists, I insist a little," he says. I say "just come for a coffee. If you don't like me, it's OK. But I must know who is this beautiful woman."
I went to Stephan's wedding last month. He married a woman he chatted up while shopping in his local street market. I wish them both many long, happy evenings in front of the TV. Because anything else and she's going to have to watch out.
A smile at the end of the day
Back at the Pompidou Centre, Nicolas still has a way to go. A seduction ant at the foot of a seduction mountain.
How many girls has he approached this afternoon? Everybody's lost count.
Possibly suffering from charm fatigue, he begins an umpteenth offensive with, "Excuse me, I think you're not bad looking." To which the young woman replies, "Oh yeah? How many out of ten?"
But despite these inauspicious beginnings, when he asks for her number she replies, "No problem." And when he comes back to receive his coach's congratulations, his smile - perhaps for the first time this afternoon - is a real one.
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