(IMPORTANT UPDATE at end)
The French have always liked to think Americans are yahoos, ascribing importance, as we are wont to do, to the private lives of our politicians. They, the true sophisticates, ignore such human peccadilloes to the extent that a complaisant Parisian press hid the existence of the illegitimate daughter of their president Francois Mitterand for decades.
Not that we Americans were much better. Frenchified, we ultimately gave a pass to Bill Clinton for getting oral sex from an intern in the hallway adjoining the Oval Office; I have not heard of anything that extreme happening, as yet, in the corridors of the Elysee Palace.
Still, we have a slightly different view of these things from the French. To them affairs are a normal rite of passage and we are simply square to make a big deal about them.
Wrong. They are the squares. Monumentally so.
How do I know? I have seen it up close, alas. I won’t get into the sad details, but some time ago I had an affair with a married French woman — I was single then — that went on for a couple of years.
I’m not proud of it in the least. It was stupid, immoral (yes, that) and eventually sheer emotional Hell. Besides hurting other people, most of them innocent, it drastically affected my work in a negative way and made me a liar on frequent occasions. In sum, I was despicable, weak, selfish and destructive of myself and others to do it.
But I did learn something about the French. Pace Edith Piaf and Yves Montand, there is nothing chic or hip about their adultery. After all the shared Gauloise and baiser volé, it’s just cheating. People don’t respect each other. People don’t trust each other. Indeed, they begin to hate each other. Life is wretched. It’s like a game of ritual self-and-other torture played out by a significant sector of their society — particularly in the elite classes — into oblivion.
I have often speculated that this casual acceptance of (note: not the existence of) adultery is related somehow to the decline of the once magnificent French culture, the disappearance for over a half a century now of the likes of the aforementioned Piaf and Montand. It’s hard to imagine them making a film today like Francois Truffaut’s riveting 1964 meditation on the perils of adultery The Soft Skin.
So I read with some interest the French reaction to the accusations of sexual abuse by the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, putative Socialist Party frontrunner in the race for the French presidency. Would they make a connection, as I do, between DSK’s alleged act, raping a maid in a New York hotel, which is obviously quite aberrant, and the larger cultural climate of their country? That’s a hard thing for any society to accept.