A Point of View: Sex and the French

  • Published
Francoise Hollande kissing his girlfriend, Valerie TrierweilerImage source, AP

Press reports about the French president's complicated love life highlight the difference between Anglo-Saxon and Gallic attitudes towards sex, adultery, but above all appetite, writes Adam Gopnik.

Whenever a French man of state has sex with someone not his wife, people call me up and ask why he did it. When I say people do, I really mean journalists (a sub-species whose personhood is sometimes in doubt) and I suppose I really mean newspaper editors and radio producers (a still more dubious class). But they do call, and they do ask. This is simply because I lived in France for some years and have written a lot about life there, and the false assumption is made that I am intimately expert on all its corners, including those obscure from my view. This is a version of the popular journalist's "fallacy of omniscience by proximity". I'm sure that anyone who ever wrote from Korea gets similar calls: "You lived there, right? You must have often seen out-of-favour relatives being eaten alive by ravenous dogs? Can't you tell our listeners something about it?"

So, though I know nothing, or damn little, of the specific habits and sex acts of French presidents (when a French statesman thinks of having illicit love, his next thought is not "I must call Gopnik to share my feelings and get his view") still, I do have a view about President Hollande's recent activities, and his supposed tryst with the actor Julie Gayet.

In this instance, of course, this is a case of a man having sex with someone not his wife because he had, in fact, no wife not to be faithful to (if that makes Parisian sense), only a series of apparently increasingly embittered partners and some kids. As I say, I claim no expertise about it, but I do have a view on it, and it is a double one that I shall inexpertly but passionately, if not illicitly, unpack for you now. And that is that the good French principle of a right to privacy against all comers, is not quite the same thing as a right to pleasure before all else.

To begin with, I think the French view of sex and life is essentially right and ought to be universally applicable: Sex with children or by force is wrong, and the rest is just the human comedy, unfolding, as it will. Puritanism is a sin against human nature, and the worst of it is that puritanism is the most leering and prurient of world views. Far from wanting to keep sex in the private sphere, the puritans can't wait to drag it out in public. Puritans are the least buttoned-up people in the world. They can't wait to pin a scarlet A for adultery on someone's clothing, or hold a public humiliation ritual.

Nothing could be more illustrative of this than the tone of outraged indignation directed by British tabloid journalists at their reluctant French press equivalents in the past week. "What is it with these people?" the Brit journalists keep saying, speaking of the French ones. "Why do they refuse to invade the privacy of someone they've never met, or hang around all night to grab a few illicit pictures, causing immense pain to some stranger's wife and children, in order to obsess over a sexual affair of a kind they wish they were having themselves? And they call themselves journalists!"

Well, France is not a puritanical society - it accepts that human appetites for sex and food are normal, or "normale", to use a word much prized there, and that attempts to suppress either, will make men and women nervous wrecks at least. French presidents have love affairs. President Mitterrand had not just a wife and a mistress but two entire families (which reminds me of the old vaudeville joke: What's the penalty for bigamy? Two wives). President Sarkozy famously switched first-dames in mid-administration, beginning with the ferocious Cecilia and ending with the beaming and beautiful Carla.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Carla Bruni and the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy

But in truth, puritanical societies are less morally alert, because the puritanical societies have the judgments pre-packaged and their hypocrisies, too. In France however, the moral rights and wrongs, I've learned, are adjudicated case-by-case. I recall a Parisian woman whose husband was ill but whose lover had a stroke - which, she wondered, demanded her attention more? The circumstance might have seemed absurd, but the reasoning was anything but amoral. Indeed, the French movie director Eric Rohmer's great films are called "moral tales" exactly because they are all about the unsettled nature of desire - about whether, say, the sight of a teenage girl's knee on the beach is worth cancelling a wedding over. Morality may be permanent, but sexual ethics among adults are situational - they depend on this knee at this moment on this beach, and on all the other knees nearby. The people so engaged have to think morally, rather than just pantomiming its practice, as we Anglo-Saxons (a term that in French usage includes New York Jews and London Muslims) do.

But - and there was bound to be a but - to be a leader, a man or woman of state, does involve questions of character. And by character, I think, we simply mean the power to refrain - to not do the things that we have every right and reason to do because there's some other larger reason not to do them. And by character in leadership we mean just having the unusual capacity of being able to ask other people to refrain, without looking a prig or hypocrite while doing so. A sane state involves some balance of appetite served and appetite curbed. Right now, in France and elsewhere, ordinary people are being asked to take less from the state than they quite expected, and the rich are being asked to give more to the state than they quite want to. When the leader shows himself unable to control his own appetite, the symbolic message, larger than any political speech, is that the indulgence of appetite is not one among many goods, but an absolute good - one that trumps prudence, caution and risks, signalling that everyone needs to curb their appetites except for those with power.

Image source, Getty Images

No one, of course, is obliged to be a role model. But if you do not wish to be a role model to the public, why become a public man or woman? If you have no desire to inspire, why take up the thankless task of inspiration? Or, to put it at its most cynical, if you do not even put the pursuit of power before pleasure, why pursue it?

Perhaps what's actually being pursued is personal pleasure on the back of power, perhaps. For how else is a pudgy balding middle-aged man to have such a line of beauties in his life? If so, we have a duty to mark down the politician, as we would a bore who insists on talking politics when the occasion calls for gossip. It's the wrong activity for the moment we're in. We have no business in the bedrooms of our politicians, but once the bedroom door opens - as in our boundless day it is bound to - there are better things to see.

It is sometimes said that the French attitude towards adultery and politics is elitist. That is, that powerful French people assume an arrogant licence to do what they like that normal French people aren't allowed. It seems to me that right now the problem is that it is not elitist enough - it does not make sufficient demands on people with power and privilege. It is no accident - it is a rather good joke, actually - that the expression in English "noblesse oblige" is, obviously, really, French. Noblesse oblige does not mean that the elite have special privileges. It means that people with power have an obligation to pay even more scrupulous attention to the symbolic vibrations of their acts than the rest of us do. It is not that we are obliged to genuflect before nobles - it is that nobles are obliged to defer to us. The price of privilege is prudence.

Image source, Getty Images

All this talk of appetite reminds me of that other great invention that sits besides the open door of the French bedroom, and that is the French table. It was just a year ago that Unesco declared French gastronomy one of the world's cultural treasures, like Angkor Wat or the Tower of London. Finally, the behaviour of the French political elite is extremely selfish and one wonders who takes any interest in raising their children - it would not surprise me if they make extensive use of nannies since clearly the parents put their own pleasure ahead of a commitment to raise the children. I think that one of the ways the French table civilises us is that it asks us both to indulge our hungers and to control them, at the same time. We do not gorge. We wait until everyone is seated. We consider the company even as we eye the dishes. The point of great French dining is not that we should simply sit down and celebrate our appetites, but that we have to transform our hungers into civilised desires. Learning which fork to use means learning when not to. Self-righteousness about other people's appetites is uncivilised. But not being able to control your own when the social occasion demands it is very bad manners. And that is one more thing I learned in France.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook