France’s unfaithful servants of the people - Le Times britannique , le 17mai, 2011
Britain may be too censorious about its politicians’ sex lives but
nudge-nudge admiration is no less misguided
Which French politician was sleeping with which famous actress? Which
president had fathered a secret love-child? Which two former presidents
shared a girlfriend? Which dumped mistress had tried to kill herself?
These were the fevered topics of conversation in Parisian journalistic
circles when I worked there in the 1990s and the chatter has hardly changed
since. The complex, semi-public sex lives of French politicians are still
endlessly debated but seldom reported, in obedience to France’s strict
privacy laws and a longstanding cultural taboo.
The adultery of politicians is discussed in France, not with moralising
disapproval, but a desire to display insider knowledge and a nudge-nudge
admiration for sexual prowess. Sex drive is still regarded as a measure of
Successive French presidents have vied to outdo one another in bedroom
reputation, regarding a certain droit de seigneur as a perk of office.
Silvio Berlusconi may be the oldest swinger in town, but in France the
politician- seducer is part of the national heritage.
There is, of course, a gulf of difference between the art of seduction and
what Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund, is
alleged to have done to a hotel chambermaid in New York. DSK may be innocent
of attempted rape, or even, as his supporters insist, the victim of a
set-up, but he is also representative of a French political culture that
winks at promiscuity and proclaims an adult attitude to sexual infidelity,
while endlessly gossiping about it.
DSK’s reputation as a Lothario was legendary. But there were also hints that
his behaviour went beyond that of an experienced and energetic ladies’ man:
hushed-up accusations of a sexual assault in 2002, rumours of a “too pushy”
attitude towards the opposite sex, the widespread understanding that this
charming and urbane politician might be unsafe in taxis.
In a recent book with the unsexy title Sexus Politicus, Christophe Dubois
and Christophe Deloire argue that “almost all French male politicians are
compulsive womanisers”. The key word is “compulsive”, as France positively
encourages its political leaders to sleep around unless, of course, they
happen to be women. “Far from being a flaw, to cast yourself in the role of
seducer is without doubt an important quality in our political life,” Dubois
and Deloire write.
Sexual boasting is deeply embedded, so to speak, in French political
history. President Fיlix Faure suffered a fatal stroke at the Elysיe Palace
in 1899 while receiving the sexual attentions of his mistress — a feat of
amatory heroism that has entirely eclipsed anything he achieved while alive.
His 20th-century namesake Edgar Faure (no relation), Prime Minster of France
in the 1950s, best expressed the swaggering attitude that persists today:
“When I was a minister, some women resisted me. Once I became President [of
the Council], not even one.”
Of the postwar presidents, only Charles de Gaulle, with military
self-discipline, regarded the marriage vow as binding. Even with advanced
cancer, Franחois Mitterrand was unstoppably adulterous. When his mistress
and illegitimate daughter attended his funeral, it was widely seen in
France, with approval, as the posthumous flourish of a master swordsman.
But Valיry Giscard d’Estaing surely wins the Silvio Berlusconi Award for
Ludicrous Sexual Dribbling Disguised as Politics: “When I was President of
the Republic, I was in love with 17 million Frenchwomen. When I saw them in
the crowd, they felt it, and they voted for me.” In Britain, even Alan Clark
might have hesitated to say something like that.
In his memoirs, published after leaving office, Jacques Chirac gloried in
having had numerous affairs “as discreetly as possible”. I happened to live
in the same Paris street as one of his mistresses, and I can attest that
there was nothing discreet about the arrival of the presidential motorcade
and the gendarmes who sealed off the street so that traffic noise would not
disturb him during his afternoon trysts. Thankfully, the road was not
blocked for long.
While Chirac painted himself as an unapologetic chaud lapin, the truth was
more complex, as adultery always is, even in France. His wife later
described how unhappy his affairs had made her. His chauffeur described a
more tawdry parade of presidential conquests: “To an almost sickening
degree,” he wrote, “Chirac has had party militants, secretaries, all those
with whom he spent a busy five minutes.”
Contrasting French discretion with the Anglo-Saxon media’s obsessive
interest in the sex lives of politicians, the French novelist Yves Berger
applauded the “wisdom and good sense which we in the old world, especially
in France, have long prided ourselves on: the ability to recognise the
distinction between public and private lives”.
The French species of hypocrisy is simply different from ours: politicians
are expected to stray, pretending to the public that they do not, while
those in the know titter lasciviously in private. Not surprisingly, French
politicians have come to believe that they can behave like priapic goats and
get away with it.
Male politicians, that is, for French politics remains a deeply sexist
world; a woman politician would never be allowed to develop the sort of
reputation that Strauss-Kahn enjoyed — and I mean enjoyed.
What a politician elects to do in bed, so long as it is legal, should not be
a reason for electing him, or not. Sexual behaviour is neither a matter for
censure nor approval. The French are no more highly sexed than other
nations, although they like to believe they are. According to a recent
survey, the adultery rate is lower in France than in the US, although as
this is a subject almost certain to elicit a lie the statistics are hardly
The British may be too prudish about sexual behaviour, but the Strauss-Kahn
scandal shows that French fascination with political seducers may be at
least equally misguided.
Inevitably, DSK’s enemies are now lining up to claim that a blind eye was
turned to his sexual behaviour in the past. The National Front leader Marine
Le Pen crowed that the whole of Paris has long been abuzz with talk about
the “pathological relations Mr Strauss-Kahn seems to have with women”.If he
is convicted, it will demonstrate once again the fatal link between power
and sex that has destroyed so many politicians in the past. But it will also
represent an indictment of a macho, secretive French political culture that
regards philandering as merely part of a long French tradition: Liberté,