Every time the news exposes a public figure as an adulterer someone invariably brings up the French. The French, we say, are more civilized and realistic about affairs. Look at the famous photograph of Prime Minister Francois Mitterand's wife, mistress and illegitimate daughter grieving together in 1996 at his funeral, for instance.
When Jesse Jackson, married for 38 years, was forced last week by a tabloid expose to confess that he has a 20-month-old child with another woman, I was reminded again of the French. I thought back to the late '60s, when I was studying in Bordeaux and first heard about "le cinq a sept"--"the five-to-seven," a don't-ask-don't-tell time French couples supposedly give one another to be with their lovers. To a naive young American, raised in the suburbs in the 1950s, it was a thrillingly liberating concept, as romantic as the glitter of l'amour that permeated French public life and made every walk down the street an adventure.
The relative lack of outrage in the Jackson affair, the latest in a never-ending stream of similar revelations, made me wonder whether Americans are finally getting ready to adopt the French attitudes we've been talking so much about.
Some think it's already happened. Others say it's just not possible.
Basically, the French and the Americans are two different peoples with two different histoires de mentalite, or histories of thinking, says Laurent de Veze, the French cultural attache in Los Angeles and a former student of philosophy. Unlike Americans, the French inherited their attitudes toward l'adultere from deep cultural roots untouched by the Puritans, he explains. First, he says, there is the tradition, inherited from the French kings, that men of power proudly claim lots of mistresses openly. Henri II, for example, gave Chenonceaux, one of the most beautiful chateaus in the Loire Valley, to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
Next, the French have the tradition of "boulevard theaters"--a popular comic theater that flourished from 1830 to 1916, he says. The plot of the plays always centered around a love triangle--a husband and wife and a lover who hides in beds and cupboards or jumps out of windows to avoid being discovered. "The hero is always the man or the woman who has two lovers," de Veze says. "People laugh at the cocu (the cuckold). Because for 100 years, adultery is the major subject of Theatre de Boulevard where people come to laugh, it becomes less and less tragic. It becomes a laughing matter."
Perhaps the most telling difference between the French and the Americans, he says, is the strong tradition of the French media, "which never, never, never interfere with private life," he says. "It's not a law. It's simply because people are not interested." De Veze insists he is not interested at all, for example, by his minister's sex life. "I'm not interested if he's gay, heterosexual, has a love affair with somebody. It's not my business."
Many Americans, of course, are not interested at all in their public leaders' sex lives--until they hear or read about them in the news. Then we're fascinated. Or appalled.
"It's like the wonderful line in the country western song: 'I wish I didn't know now what I didn't know yesterday,' " says University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz. "The problem is not that we wouldn't like to be like the French in some ways. It's just easier to do in theory than when we have a press who gives us all the details. If I hear who Newt Gingrich was with while his wife was ill, I can't help but hate him for the information I have."
Unlike the French, we don't automatically comprehend the nature of lust, forgive it, and create a separate compartment for it that doesn't affect our feeling for somebody, she says.
It's mostly students of sexuality who understand that "a huge number of us live lives that would be considered deviant in some way," says Schwartz, author of "Everything You Know About Love and Sex is Wrong" (Putnam, 2000). "It doesn't mean we're all non-monogamous," she says. "Some people might like to be tied up, walk about in dog collars, or have no sex, which is also not allowed in our country. I'm sure there are lots of couples who have not slept with each other for years and they'd never reveal it."
In reality, French and American couples behave about the same. Divorce rates are about the same. There's probably the same amount of infidelity going on, say informed observers. "French spouses are as angry as American ones would be if this hit home," says novelist Diane Johnson, who divides her time between Paris and San Francisco and has written several books about Americans in France. ("Le Mariage" and "Le Divorce," to name two.)