Clip_3346France is experiencing its blush of youthful prudishness as an entire generation of younger French women says non, merci to the summer tradition of topless sunbathing.

Since France’s summer-vacation season kicked off in early July 2009, the press has repeatedly sounded the alarm over the shrinking number of topless women on the nation’s beaches. The prevailing trend among sun-loving women these days is to actually use both pieces of their bikini. Le Monokini, C’est Fini! shouted Le Parisien in its July 21 report from a Mediterranean beach, using the preferred term for one-piece toplessness.

Nude Breasts Are Less Trendy” concurred the free daily Metro France. “The fashion has become common, and as a result, less appealing. Some observers have noted too that the return to the two-piece is a response to rising concerns about skin cancer.

But the more concealing swimwear trend is also part of a wider social movement by younger French women who are shunning the less inhibited habits of previous generations. If burning bras and going topless were the ways French women of the 1970s and ’80s demonstrated their freedom, their daughters and grand-daughters seem less comfortable with exposed flesh. “We’re seeing a return to more [conservative] and family values,” said Kaufmann. “Modesty and discretion are in fashion now.”

A survey titled “Women and Nudity” released by polling agency Ifop captures the move to cover up. It indicates younger French women not only have a problem with nudity but actually consider themselves prudish. Fully 88% of the women questioned qualified themselves as pudique — a term that can mean anything from modest or prim to full-blown priggish.

And they aren’t joking. Though 90% said they get naked with their husband or partner, nearly 60% actively avoid being nude around their children. Sixty-three percent of respondents said they also refuse to undress around women friends. About 22% said they considered a woman in her underwear already naked.

With sensitivities like those, it’s little wonder that the poll also found that French women had strong opinions about public nakedness. Nearly 50% said they were bothered by total nudity on beaches or naturist camps, and 37% said they were disturbed by publicly exposed breasts or buttocks. Forty-five percent of respondents reported they’d simply prefer to see a lot less flesh — male or female — hanging out in full view.

Those attitudes got even more pronounced with respondents ages 18 to 24. Fully 25% of women in that age group described themselves as very pudique, and 20% said they considered any nudity tantamount to indecency. That, sociologists say, helps explain the changing scenery on French beaches. Younger women disinclined to bare their more private parts make up the majority of female sunbathers; those still willing to go topless are usually older French women who blazed the trail all those years ago. Or as the Times of London’s website phrased it, “Only the Oldies Go Topless on French Beaches.”

“There aren’t any rules, but yeah, it’s true, when you’re at the beach and look around, the only topless women anymore are older,” said a 19-year-old named Elodie as she visited Paris’ summertime artificial beach known as Paris Plage. Elodie pointed out that a municipal fine — and frequently lousy weather — made going topless at Paris Plage a nonstarter. When asked whether she went topless on vacation beaches — and what factors made her decide when she did and didn’t — Elodie gave a reply as chilly as it was logical. “All those things,” she said, “are personal concerns.”

Good point — and one apparently leading most French women of Elodie’s age to keep themselves bikini’d up. But the contrast with U.S. practices is hard not to notice. After all, American women visiting France these days have no qualms about going topless. And plenty of young American women are only too happy to playfully flash their wares in exchange for a few beads. In some ways, the puritanical swimsuit now seems to be on the other torso — a new French squeamishness that will doubtless leave some Americans, well, titillated.