French president Francois Hollande is in the United States for a state dinner at the White House and will, due to a series of unbelievable and imprudent romantic decisions, be attending the dinner alone. This feels like as good a time as any to talk about a subject that fascinates and confuses Americans—French infidelity.Julie Gayet, courtesy Reuters
For those unfamiliar with President Hollande’s romantic life, it goes as follows. In 2007, Hollande left his common-law wife of some twenty years for a beautiful, hot-headed, not entirely likable journalist named Valérie Trierweiler. She acted as France’s first lady, going on aid missions to Africa, entertaining heads of state and making him look more stable and glamorous than he really was. Then a month ago a French tabloid revealed Hollande was scooting off in the evenings to romance an actress named, Julie Gayet. Trierweiler promptly entered the hospital for ‘the blues’, and soon after the President announced in a curt statement he was ending his relationship with her. For weeks the French press speculated whether Gayet would be going to America as the French first lady—after all, who goes to a state dinner alone?—but in the end a kind of good taste prevailed. Hollande would go to the dinner stag.
It’s the kind of efficient French melodrama you would never, ever hear coming out of American politics. After revealing true love for his Argentine mistress, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford cried on television. Bill Clinton has made so many mea culpas it’s hard to count. US politicians are held to a higher moral standard than the average citizen, and we feel the right to judge his or her character in a way we wouldn’t anyone else.
The opposite is true in France. The business and political elite are allowed, even encouraged, to live within a broader moral scope. Their romances are seen as the consequences of power and intelligence. They have greater appetites, more stressful jobs, and require the company of beautiful female interlocutors with whom they may, yes, occasionally sleep. Perhaps the average French citizen — burdened by the unshakable feeling his country is slowly going down the drain — takes pride and solace in the impossibly hot woman the President is able to attract. Unemployment is double digit and growth at zero, but oh my, isn’t she a French peach.
The problem is there is now a perception that all French men cheat on their wives. I have been asked by more than one cheerfully curious American acquaintance how I ‘cope’ with the inevitable infidelity of a French spouse. Do I just put up with it? Do I fight back? Do I have affairs?
Any man can cheat, given the right circumstances, and any woman can too. But I would be very surprised to find out that my Catholic, conservative, family-oriented, slightly schlumpy husband was cruising the singles sites at night. What’s more, I can’t really picture any of his friends, my former Reuters work colleagues or my French family members cheating on their spouses, either. To find true lotharios I have to look far outside my everyday life, and I suspect that most French people do too.
Where do I find womanizers?— in the halls of entertainment: political, economic and theatrical. As a reporter I visited the assemblée national (roughly akin to the U.S. House of Representatives) several times and never have I ever gotten such a creepy feeling. These were midlevel politicians from obscure regions, yet they seemed to view women as a job perks. It was the kind of place where you could have your ass pinched.
French executives are more subtle, but no less potent. Generally speaking, France is run by highly educated, flawlessly-bred white men with lovely wives tucked away in the countryside. These men are slender, charming, intelligent and discrete. They will usually take a mistress from within their own ranks—a colleague in marketing or public relations, or again (depressingly), a journalist. They have a tremendous sense of entitlement, and are experts at keeping each others secrets, so these affairs rarely if ever reach the press. (The entertaining exception is Arnaud Lagardere’s, CEO of media and defense company Lagardere. He loves his girlfriend so much he made a video about it.)
Were it only so easy for the politicians. A press corp that gamely turned a blind eye to Francois Mitterand’s second family and plethora of girlfriends, is no longer so pliant. The French public is now seeing that their politicians are playing the field like college kids. The question is, will they revolt? Will they demand more serious behavior? Will French women ever decide to stand up for each other?
Probably not. The French seem to take a certain pride in tolerating infidelity. In a 2013 survey 47 percent of respondents said having an affair was ‘morally unacceptable,’ as opposed to 84 percent of Americans. But this poll again seems to speak more to how strident a culture is in defense of virtue rather than actual virtue. An overwhelming majority of Americans may find infidelity reprehensible, but that doesn’t mean they don’t stray. How many businessman in Milwaukee go down to the hotel bar thinking: ‘tomorrow I’ll go to church, tonight I need a little R&R.’
The French are, bless their hearts, more tolerant and probably less hypocritical. Human frailty is to be accepted as inevitable. But as my mother-in-law Madame L. once noted any woman who allowed her husband to cheat was both crazy and weak. At a family dinner she once nodded in approval when hearing that a famous actress had threatened her faithless lover with a knife. As a good Catholic, Madame L. would never, ever divorce, but somehow knife fights fit the picture of acceptable marital behavior. If French women have even a quarter of her strength, and from what I have seen they do, then the love life of French couples is a far more domesticated and exciting than anyone would care to admit.
Keeping le couple alive, French style
This list is obviously just for fun, but I think there is a kernel of truth in some of the sentiments.
1. Take yourself seriously. Don’t get fat. Don’t get sloppy. Don’t walk around the house in flip flops and cutoffs.
2. Eat dinner together, with the children if you must, but try to ignore them so you can have a conversation.
3. Go out to eat at least once every two weeks.
4. Work with attractive people who will make your spouse slightly jealous. French women, in particular, usually work and they have offices full of French men who are very forgiving about wrinkles, and think motherhood is sexy…
5. Frown on business trips. It’s bad for the family to be away from home and gauche to work so much.
6. Be as proud of your marital sex life as you are of your house, your clothes and your figure combined.