Liberté, Égalité, Virilité

The French don't just tolerate their politicians' sexual dalliances -- they demand them.


The arraignment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges including attempted rape and sexual abuse of a hotel housekeeper has stunned France. Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist who was forced to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, was about to announce his intention to run for president in 2012. His reputation as a womanizer did not seem to hurt his chances; he was ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls.

That changed when Strauss-Kahn, a man who had been known as a grand séducteur, suddenly was accused of being a violent criminal. Certainly, the Strauss-Kahn scandal has nothing to do with seduction à la française. But it has focused attention on the age-old habits of French politicians — male politicians, that is — to use seduction as a campaign tool. I explore that issue in detail in my current book La Seduction, from which the following is adapted.

In the United States, sexual desire is considered a distraction from the hard work of governing. Politicians are supposed to be pure, or at least strive to be. Americans have proved time and again that they see a politician’s cheating in marriage as tantamount to cheating on the voters and the country. Even the most innocently playful banter can have negative consequences. [As we’ve seen in recent days, the salacious online sexual liaisons of Representative Anthony D. Weiner of New York and his subsequent lies about them have prompted several prominent Democrats to call for his resignation.]

In France, the ability to seduce a lover and engage on the playing field of sexual pleasure, in or out of marriage, is regarded by both men and women as a basic male competency, and no male politician dares risk being seen as inadequate. An aura of virility and sexual potency is not merely a plus. It’s a necessity. A political man who reveals his sexual prowess is proving his good health and vigor: he is showing his constituents that he is fully and physically capable of running the country.

When asked in 1992 by the popular magazine Actuel whether they had ever cheated on their wives, most politicians showed little hesitation to answer in the affirmative. “I will not lie to you,” one senator replied. “In Marseille, everything is known. I do not drink. I do not smoke. I never gamble. But I have one passion, and I repeat one passion: I love women. I have been a very, very, very great womanizer.”

“To come to power, you have to seduce, and to stay there, you have to prove yourself vigoureux,” wrote Jacques Georgel in his book, Sexe et politique. Politicians are not hounded out of office for sexual indiscretions, and the public is oft en happy to let their secrets remain officially under wraps. But seduction flows as an undercurrent in public and private life, so it is natural that talking about politicians’ personal lives is part of the national discourse.

French politicians are allowed to enjoy their enhanced opportunities, unlike Americans, who are forced to take up the mantle of purity just when assuming high office might give them an advantage in the sexual game, This reality flows from centuries of precedent. The kings took sexual seduction to new heights. There was a hierarchy to the women in their lives: wives, significant others (known as “favorites”), and women passing through the court who provided fleeting adventures. To make sure that no one forgets France’s royal history today, the kings’ escapades are routinely retold in cover stories in mainstream weekly news magazines.

The tradition of seduction carried forward into modern times. Edgar Faure, a politician who wrote crime novels under a pseudonym and was a member of the Académie Française, liked to say that he had all the time in the world to succeed in his operations of seduction.

When Faure became the president of the Council (de facto prime minister) in the 1950s, he availed himself of all the perquisites of office. “When I was a minister, some women resisted me,” he told a friend, according to Sexus Politicus, a 2005 book on sex and politics in France, “Once I became president, not even one.”

The concept of sexual sin and forgiveness means little in French politics, and Bible-thumpers like Mark Sanford of South Carolina don’t exist in France. As a congressman in 1998, Sanford called for Clinton’s impeachment (“He lied under a different oath, and that’s the oath to his wife,” Sanford said); eleven years later, as governor of his state, he lied about his own extramarital affair. The French political elite was astonished when the sex antics of Sanford and María Belén Chapur, his “soul mate,” as he called her, made news.

What really made the French giggle about Sanford was his need to babble on about his feelings. French commentators were bemused that he got teary about crossing the “sex line” with Chapur, admitted his sinfulness, apologized, and asked for forgiveness. It is impossible to imagine Jacques Chirac or Nicolas Sarkozy or any French politician giving such a performance.

Indeed, in the modern era, the presidency of France has largely served as a new, expansive stage for performances of seduction. For the first half of the twentieth century, the country’s constitution was based on a parliamentary system. There was a prime minister, but his power was diluted by the strength of the national legislators. The constitution of the Fifth Republic, created in 1958, gave France its presidency, an exceptionally powerful one with some of the trappings of monarchy.

In running for the presidency of France in 1974, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was convinced that he had discovered the formula for winning elections. It was not a sophisticated polling operation or a massive grassroots organization. It was not an army of brilliant speechwriters or policy aides educated at France’s top graduate schools. Giscard had a much simpler solution: he went after the votes of women. And he did it not with promises of pay equity or better child care, but with le regard, the look, the electric charge between two people when their eyes lock and a bond is created.

D’Estaing’s personal opération séduction was not enough to get him reelected for a second seven- year term as president in 1981. But after his defeat, Giscard took it as his mission to convince the French that he was more than lovable – that he was downright sexy- and that they had made a mistake in voting him out of office. He sought to burnish his image by writing a sentimental, melodramatic sex novel. Le passage, published in 1994, tells a story of hunting and of love in which Charles, a solitary, passive middle-aged man, becomes obsessed with Natalie, a mysterious blond twenty-year-old hitchhiker.

In his eighties, Giscard remained determined to promote his image as a sexually potent male. In 2009, he published a second novel, which titillated readers with the suggestion that he might have had a love affair with Britain’s Princess Diana. La princesse et le président relates the “violent passion” between a French head of state and a British royal named Patricia.

The book ends with the president and the princess living happily ever after in Tuscany. Giscard said that he considered ending the book with the president going off with the Corsican doctor. “I thought about it, but I didn’t do it because of Diana,” he said. “Because I said to myself that this would be an insult to her memory if the president went off with the doctor. And well, this book, it’s completely an invention, naturally, but Diana said to me-I knew her a little, but not much, a little, like that, in conversation-and she said to me, ‘But you should write what would happen if there were a love story between two great leaders of the world.’ ”

One morning, not long after the publication of this latest novel, I called on Giscard in his antique-filled home in the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris. There he was, this man in his eighties, with wrinkled hands and a balding head and a lined face, enjoying his fantasy about a love affair with a young and beautiful princess. There was something poignant about Giscard holding on to a dream of gallantry and ideal love.

Later, as we were saying our good-byes, his hand seemed to rest for a second on the derriere of my young researcher. It was not aggressive. Perhaps it was accidental. Perhaps it never happened.

Then it seemed to happen a second time.

Elaine Sciolino is a Paris correspondent for the New York Times. Her latest book is La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life.