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.)
As in France, American men of means also have affairs, even second families, without disrupting their primary family, according to Herb Samuels, a sexologist at the City University of New York. The main difference is that they hide it because it would be a scandal if discovered. Although infidelity is not uncommon among ministers, Jackson disappointed many people who saw his actions as hypocritical, Samuels says. "As a nation, we're more hypocritical than others and particularly the men here," he says. "The primary reason is that we're still laboring under puritanical, Victorian views about the role of women in society that France did not undergo."
In contrast, the French pride themselves on their reputations as lovers as much as winemakers. If they try to shade their images, it's to make themselves appear sexier than they are.
The "five-to-seven" is really just a "downtime in the day, that time of day when nobody's really accountable," Johnson says. "It's not the same as having permission. It's just a convenient hour when if you're having an affair you might be meeting. Then it got institutionalized." Although people still talk about it, she says, she doesn't know anyone who actually uses the hours for romantic trysts.
The concept probably wouldn't translate here, she says. Even if we wanted to, nobody's available. "Americans are all on the freeway during those hours. The French have a good public transportation system. Too bad for us."
There are those, of course, who doubt that adopting French attitudes is a good thing. Many Americans believe that impulses need to be managed and contained for the sake of the family or because adultery is a sin and/or a violation of marital vows. Some feminists argue that adultery is demeaning to women. Countries with lower rates of domestic violence, such as France, can afford more liberal attitudes, they say. In our country, we can't afford to condone any disrespect toward women, they argue, saying Jesse Jackson should have divorced his wife before embarking on his affair.
Schwartz counters that it's not that simple. "A lot of these affairs are between some spiffy people. Jesse Jackson isn't attracted to a house frau. She's got her own power. Is she in some way taken advantage of because she is attracted to power? I think it's bad sociology to think non-monogamy is about disrespect to women."
Many French people think Americans are cruel to break up a family over an affair. Schwartz asks, "What's the moral position? Leaving the kids without a daddy, or leaving someone who broke a promise?"
There are signs, however, that Americans already do think like the French. Thirty years ago, the majority of respondents to questionnaires would say they would leave an unfaithful spouse. Now, less than half say they would go, Schwartz says.
Johnson sees another signpost in the public support for Clinton. "They supported the distinction between public and private life. They weren't really that shocked. I really think Americans are more realistic than we're given credit for. Especially in the press."
Politicians still feel compelled to pose for campaign pictures with their families and their dogs. But George W. Bush drew a line when he said during his campaign that he would not discuss his past. "It's a step in the direction of making this kind of distinction between public and private," Johnson says. "Surely the next politician will be able to do the same thing."
Samuels sees a steady progress over the last 100 years toward maturity in our sexual attitudes. "We are a long way from where we used to be," he says. Wealthy women in New York, for instance, are starting to mirror the sexual freedoms of their male counterparts, particularly in the use of escorts as platonic or sexual companions, he says. "We have a way to go if we ever approximate a European idea of sexuality."
If Jackson's revelation, which was followed swiftly by San Francisco's married-but-separated Mayor Willie Brown, who admitted he had impregnated a "good friend," offers any lessons, Schwartz says, "It's that it's certainly happening a lot. We're not going to stop it by exposing it."