Why the French President’s Affair Isn’t About Sex

Most men cheat because…”they simply need breathing space. For such men, who are in fact profoundly monogamous, infidelity is almost unavoidable.” That is, according to one of France’s most famous psychologists, Maryse Vaillant, in her 2009 book — where she also estimates that 39 percent of French men cheat on their wives at some point. (Gulp, and I’m about to marry one.) But…wait for it…a new U.S. study says that about 40 percent of American women cheat on their husbands. Sensing a trend?

Extra-marital fooling around is everywhere. Yet it seems to be even more prominent in politics: the higher up you go, the more rampant the affairs. I guess when you’re the ruler of the free world (or at least your little country), where else do you have to go to get a high on power than to the arms of a woman who’s not your wife. The latest scandal? Swirling rumors about an affair between French president Francois Holland and the actress Julie Gayet were confirmed last week in the French press, with Holland’s longtime companion Valérie Trierweiler hospitalized Monday for exhaustion. Sounds like a Gallic soap opera…tell me more!

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Turns out (in especially shocking news) there’s been lots of saliva shared in the French “Élysée”: Mitterand, with Louvre curator Anne Pingeot (complete with a “second family” they kept secret, revealed only as Mitterand left office); Chirac and his Japanese mistress (they also had a baby together, which was only unearthed in a book after he left office); Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and the erotic actress Sylvia Kristel (among lots of other women); and, more recently, Sarkozy and singer Carla Bruni (they got married when he was in office!!).

But before you’re too quick to shake it off as just a “French” thing, affairs in the White House are nothing new either (though the French do manage to outdo Americans on most levels of outrageousness). Take, for example, JFK, with Marilyn Monroe (among quite a few others); FDR, with his distant cousin Margaret ‘Daisy’ Suckley; Thomas Jefferson, with his slave Sally Hemings; Clinton, with his intern, Monica Lewinsky.

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The difference, of course, has been in how the press and fellow politicians have reacted to these affairs. For the most part, presidents’ private lives have been pretty much none of your business on both sides of the pond, with the press shut out of the proverbial oval office both in the U.S. and France (you didn’t hear anyone talking about JFK’s now notorious loose-belt policy when he was president). But then…something changed.

That is, around the time Clinton introduced Monica Lewinsky to his favorite cigar (“I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). The press jumped on it like starved wildebeests. So did politicians, who somehow got the matter into court, then called for his impeachment for lying there.

It was 1998. CNN was at its prime. While America is a prudish country compared to Western Europe, the hysteria this silly affair reached had a lot to do with political showboating from ego-drunk men who loved the 15 minutes of limelight they got for denouncing their political rival. Like this guy:

“Our failure to bring President Clinton to account for his lying under oath and preventing the courts from administering equal justice under law, will cause a cancer to be present in our society for generations.”

— James Sensenbrenner: (R-WI)

Cancer. Wow.

Take that, in comparison, with the reaction of Marine le Pen, the head of the right-wing Front Nationale party, about far left-wing President Hollande’s affair:

“Our president Francois Holland, as a citizen of this country, has asked us to stay out of his private life. He’s right to do so, and I have nothing to more to say.”

Can you imagine if an American politician ever said that about his opponent?? Our politicians can’t stop screaming at and about each other long enough to get a damn bill passed.

So in the end, these very public affairs are never really about the sex or even cheating — at least as far as the rest of us are concerned. They’re about selling newspapers. And political power. The French do judge their politicians’ lives, because there’s been a ton of coverage about the Hollande affair in both American and French press. (We’re all fascinated with politicians’ scandalous personal lives. Sex sells!) I’m not downplaying the ickiness of extramarital affairs (I’m liberal, but I am getting married too…and the thought of cheating disgusts me). But ego-maniac politicians with mistresses are everywhere, puritan country or not. It comes down to how these affairs are handled publicly…and unfortunately in the U.S they become weapons for political game.

More importantly, I think we just have to hope that these powerful men who love to let their dicks hang out of their pants don’t also have their heads in the clouds when it comes to running their countries. And if they do, they’ll hang themselves another way. That’s a point on which I think all Americans and French can agree.

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