Exercise in France: no longer just for Jules and gym

Coquettish, they are not.

Leotards are their normal outfit. Exercising is their preoccupation.

In this society which has traditionally associated feminine above all with femininity, Veronique de Villele, blonde, strong, and energetic, and Davina Delor, brunette, petite, yet also a bundle of nonstop energy, stand out.

It is Veronique and Davina's suppleness, not beauty, that is turning heads in their direction. ''Gym Tonic,'' their exercise show a la Jane Fonda, is the new hit on French television. Every Sunday morning at 10 a.m. they lead thousands in a whirlwind workout.

Their success reflects a profound change in France. Athletics and keeping in shape, not so long ago denigrated in fashionable circles here, are now in.

In the countryside, Sunday bicyclists and old men playing a slow game of ''boules'' after lunch have been a common sight for years. The French have long specialized in active ski vacations in the Alps and athletic trips to the beach courtesy of the Club Mediterranee.

Still, until recently, athletics have not been an essential part of this society, especially in the cities. There are few sports in school, for example.

Today, the newsweekly L'Express reports, Parisians are no longer saying, ''I'm going on vacation,'' but ''I'm going away to get back into shape.''

Statistical evidence backs up this contention. In the past five years, the number of physical education students here has doubled to 240,000, the national physical fitness federation reports.

A staying-in-shape magazine, Vital, was launched only two years ago. Today it sells nearly 300,000 copies - almost as much as the giant newsweeklies. Exercise centers, body-building salons, and other types of health spas have spread all over the country during the last decade.

In all, Georges Sendeu of Energy, a sports consulting firm here, reports that more than 9 million Frenchmen (a little less than one-fifth of the population) now belong to a sports club. Bicycling, running, swimming, skiing, soccer, and tennis are the most popular pastimes, and Mr. Sendeu says the French spend more money on sporting goods than do other Europeans. He explains that sports have become more popular here recently as France has industrialized.

''It's the new quick pace of life,'' he says. ''People who work in offices or factories cooped up need exercise to relax and feel well.''

Veronique and Davina agree but cite another reason as well: faddishness. ''People here love to take things from America,'' Veronique explains. ''You are teaching us to be less refined, helping our society evolve to fit the new urban lifestyle.''

Their careers demonstrate this change. Both were trained as dancers, Veronique specializing in jazz ballet, Davina in classical dance.

''But we found few people can dance at a high level,'' Davina says. ''So two years ago, we decided to try and develop something that everybody would enjoy.''

They first taught groups in a dance studio. A month ago they took ''Gym Tonic'' to the nation on Channel 2. Pop music blaring, they lead viewers to wiggle every part of their bodies, turning elementary dance moves into exercises.

''One, two, three, four, there is no time to lose, stop what you were doing and come with us,'' Davina urges. ''One, two, three, four,'' chimes in Veronique. ''Keep the rhythm, breathe easily.''

A disco rhythm now. ''Roll the arms,'' Veronique orders. ''Stretch the legs, '' Davina continues, running in place. ''Give it all you have,'' Veronique cheers.

This simple formula has spawned imitators - Veronique estimates that more than 1,000 similar studios have opened in Paris since the duo started the fad.

The other national station, Channel 1, is preparing a similar show. Veronique and Davina are also putting together a book and cutting a record. Even men have started to participate. Many come to the salon after working hours to exercise.

''We seem to have the right thing at the right time,'' Veronique says.

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