Forget about yesterday’s sirens — the anorexic catwalk models and sultry young actresses once feted as icons of beauty are being replaced as France’s feminine idols by women in their fifties and sixties.

The French have long been associated with a fascination for the “superior vintage” but are taking that obsession to new extremes with a series of magazine spreads and advertising campaigns featuring women over 50 in seductive poses and without many — or in some cases any — clothes on.

Segolane Royal, the glamorous 53-year-old Socialist presidential candidate, may have set the tone last summer when she was photographed on a beach in her bikini, but she has been outdone by Arielle Dombasle, the actress, chanteuse and general sex kitten.

Her marriage to Bernard-Henri Levy, France’s most famous living philosopher, gives her a fig leaf of respectability, but last week’s Paris Match featured her wearing nothing but silvery knickers under the headline “Arielle Dombasle naked”.

She was hailed on a recent tour of America to promote her new record as a Gallic fusion of Edith Piaf and Brigitte Bardot, but at home she was being celebrated less for her perfect pitch than her plastique parfaite. Not bad for a woman of 53.

Legend has it that she saw Levy’s photograph on the jacket of one of his books and fell instantly in love with him. When she turned up at his book signing to get her copy autographed, he took one look at the silver-haired sylph and wrote on her first page “Waiting”. He did not have to wait long.

She is by no means the only menopausal muse. Charlotte Rampling, the British actress who lives in France, often appears in magazines with almost as little on as she had in 1973 when Helmut Newton photographed her naked for Vogue. When this edition of the magazine appeared in 1974, it declared her the “sexiest woman in the world”. She may be 61 and a grandmother, but her film and modelling schedules have seldom seemed busier.

This penchant for women over 50 is more than a fantasy of the fashion editors, however. It also reflects reality. The lonely hearts columns are full of advertisements from women in their fifties and sixties seeking younger men for sexual adventures.

It might provoke pity or distaste in Britain or America, where convention frowns on the notion of older women dating younger men, but this is not the only evidence of romance flourishing for ageing ladies in France. A few years ago an American survey contrasting the sexual behaviour of France and America reported grimly that “older women in the United States are less sexually desirable than French women of the same age”. Consequently, it concluded, men continued to find French women attractive as they age. By contrast, American men equated sexiness with youth.

The alluring older woman has for long been a staple of French culture. From Flaubert’s Madame Arnoux in Sentimental Education to Madame Dalleray in Colette’s Ripening Seed, the mature housewife is as likely as the nubile ingenue to play the femme fatale.

That trend has continued in the cinema, with Rampling becoming one of the biggest box office attractions in France after appearances as a teacher who seeks the companionship of strapping young Haitian men in Heading South and as a middle-aged woman coming to terms with the disappearance of her husband in Under the Sand.

The appeal of the older woman in France has also been fuelling the rebirth of Jane Birkin, the 60-year-old British-born actress.

Birkin, who became famous for her love affair and work with Serge Gainsbourg — including lots of sighing and moaning in the song Je t’aime — has also taken to posing seductively in the glossy magazines.

As for Dombasle, she has certainly caught the public’s attention. One of the photographs in Paris Match showed her playing with one of her nipples dressed in a minuscule thong. A fawning interviewer asked what her husband thought of such exhibitionism.

“When I play big roles in the theatre and packs of fans throw themselves at me at the exit, is that agreeable for a husband?” she asked. “I don’t know.”