NEW YORK — French and American reporters are worlds apart when it comes to sex and politics. French journalists based here react with amazement to their American colleagues' reports of Bill Clinton's personal life.
"It is scandalous," said Serge Marti, the correspondent here for the newspaper Le Monde. "What is the most important? That a man has an affair with a woman or the way he wants to deal with the defense budget?" he asked.
French reporters say candidates or high officials should be able to sleep with whomever they want; it is not the public's business. They do not see any link between a vigorous sex life and the ability to govern. Often, the press even considers philandering a healthy sign.
"A president who has mistresses is in good health," said Celhia de Lavarenne, a reporter for Afrique Magazine and the newspaper Le Quotidien de Paris. "If a man is a good president and a good lover, well, very good, we don't mind."
Many politicians in France are known to play around but reporters do not write about it. If they do so, they do so obliquely.
When former Prime Minister Edith Cresson was nominated for the job, last year, there were innuendoes in the French press that President Francois Mitterand had had an affair with her a few years earlier. What might have been a storm in the United States became in France merely subtle references to the president's "special" friend. No scandal and no screaming front-page headlines.
"Maybe we are more hypocritical," said Jean Gabriel Fredet of Le Nouvel Observateur magazine. "We have codes. If we talk about the 'active life' of Giscard, people understand what it means." (Valery Giscard D'Estaing is a former French president.)
And French people, it seems, take little offense at such allusions. "They are offended if the president does not do his job but not if he has a mistress," De Lavarenne said.
Some American journalists say philandering can reveal something about a politician's capacity for deception and fascination with risk taking.
French reporters argue that playing around does not reveal character and they refuse to make it an issue for voters. "It is not a way to judge politicians," said Bruno Albin, the New York reporter of Antenne 2, the No. 1 French public television network. "A faithful man can be an incompetent president."
In the mid-70s, Giscard D'Estaing, driving his own car home, crashed into a milk truck at 5 in the morning. Was the married president back from a \o7 "rendez-vous galant"? \f7 That is what Le Canard Enchaine, a satiric newspaper, insinuated. "He was certainly not coming back from the supermarket," said Philippe Coste, the New York correspondent of the newsmagazine L'Express. But again, the press handled the affair discreetly.
Fredet said it is dangerous to give too much attention to the sexual behavior of elected officials. "If you ask Americans what they think of Clinton, they will first think of this liaison with Gennifer Flowers," he said.
Many French journalists tend to explain the difference between French and American attitudes by citing America's historical puritanism. But Furio Colombo, a columnist for the influential Italian newspaper La Stampa and a professor of comparative journalism at Columbia University, disagrees.
"It's a European sport to label this country as puritanical and it's silly," he said. "The States are no more puritanical than any other country."
Colombo said candidates in European countries, with the exception of England, are less important than the parties they represent. Voters choose a party first instead of a figure. Consequently, candidates' private lives are of less interest to the media. "The American press is obsessed with truth and honesty, not with morality," he said.
Colombo said European journalists--Italians, Germans, Spaniards, Swiss or Swedish--pay little attention to their leaders' love affairs. He said he is unaware of any European politician's resigning because of an extramarital affair. Three years ago, though, Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou of Greece had a highly publicized liaison and was not reelected. But Colombo said the Greek leader was defeated mainly because he was being investigated for alleged embezzlement. In Europe and even in America, that is a far more serious crime.