Sex and Politics: The Transatlantic Divide

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Former French President Francois Mitterrand

It's obvious why no French politician has shared the distinction of Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton in getting embroiled in sex scandals that both outraged and titillated voters. In these parts, such affairs produce a Gallic shrug. American public life can be dominated by tales of soiled dresses or seedy instant messages for weeks on end, but the French are pretty blas about the sexual adventures of their elected leaders. Where the U.S. can spend millions investigating whether the chief executive did or did not "have sex with that woman," the French freely assume their president has been at it with several. If anything, a reputation for extra-marital virility can enhance the public image of a French leader.

It may not affect the way they vote, but the French do like to know what their trysting politicians get up to. And that explains the best-selling success of Sexus Politicus, a book chronicling the bedroom escapades of French leaders. It was written by two respected journalists who investigated some of the sex-centered stories involving politicians that circulate among tout Paris, before filtering their way, unconfirmed, to France's general public. Virtually no politicians are "outed" in the book for their dalliances — since in most cases, the reputation of those discussed was already established in the public mind.

In the case of the late President Franois Mitterrand, for example, the book follows a trail of strewn undergarments to confirm that he had, in fact, been the indefatigable womanizer he was always rumored to be. Mitterrand's own recognition of at least one child born out of wedlock had already cemented his reputation for serial infidelity — with no negative impact on his political standing. Similarly, the authors interview mistresses of current President Jacques Chirac and document his reputedly ravenous sexual appetite. But, since First Lady Bernadette Chirac has already publicly acknowledged suffering from her husband's skirt-chasing — and her Tammy Wynette-like determination to stand by her man — that was hardly a scoop. Nor is it news to readers that ex-president Valry Giscard d'Estaing liked to mix it up: after all, he has said that he based some of the torrid romances in his fictional work on his own carnal encounters.

So why do the French tolerate behavior that would both shame and topple leaders in the U.S. or Britain? Because, despite French lip service to their revolution's promise of "egalit" for all citizens, voters still tend to defer to politicians as a class apart who enjoy entitlements once associated with royal courts. Plus, the average French voter is no more virtuous than the typical pol, and wouldn't want his or her peccadilloes picked over in public. When pushed to explain such pragmatism, many French people will shrug, give a knowing wink, and explain, "We are Latins, after all."

Perhaps, but such cultural rationalization was previously used to explain why so many in France drove drunk, cheated on taxes and flouted smoking bans with impunity — and those habits have been curbed by tough policing and changes in attitudes. It would of course be harder to legislate against boudoir transgression, but perhaps these other areas offer hope that old French dogs can still be taught new tricks. Stranger things happen. After all, who would have bet, a year ago, that the front-runner for president in macho France would be an unmarried mother championing family rights?