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France’s sex scandals, like its films, seem more artful than ours

REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer
What the French really have not had until now is a mass-interest political sex scandal. The change is thanks to President François Hollande.

As it’s been at least months since the last good American political sex scandal (former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s few days of New York Post frenzy in December don’t count, because most people don’t count Spitzer anymore), lust-thirsty Americans are defrosting their polar vortexed eyes and casting them toward la France.

Mary Stanik

Because everyone knows the French know how to do sex. Or at least they know how to artfully portray sex in films and novels in ways that make so many of us feel like, well, Americans. Americans who have never even seen a cigarette holder.

But what the French really have not had until now is mass-interest political sex scandal. That’s all changed with the revelations of French President François Hollande and his yet-to-be-clarified relationship with French actress Julie Gayet supposedly taking place while his “official” partner, Paris Match journalist Valerie Trierweiler, is apparently so stressed out about Gayet that she is hospitalized. After all, France is the place where French President Francois Mitterand’s widow stood quite close to his mistress and illegitimate daughter at Mitterand’s 1996 funeral. As far as we know, no one threw rancid Bordeaux on anyone’s Dior dress.

To many Americans, the idea that someone like Hollande, a pasty, hair-challenged, nearly 60-year-old guy with real paunch factor might be president of France, much less involved in a sex scandal, is nearly outlandish.

When Hollande took up with Trierweiler in 2005 (who was married when she first trysted with Hollande), he took two years to publicly leave Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children, his personal and political partner of nearly 30 years, and the 2007 Socialist candidate for French president. Think Bill and Hillary Clinton, without great fashion. Royal lost to Nicolas Sarkozy, who had his own marital woes but was elected president, divorced, and then married to actress and supermodel Carla Bruni (who once trysted with Mick Jagger, but let’s not get too complicated here).

Hollande is downright mon Dieu enraged that his personal affairs have become a most un-French public scandal, thanks to pictures by the tabloid magazine Closer that allegedly showed him sneaking out of the Elysee Palace and snaking his way to Gayet’s apartment on a scooter and a badly fitting helmet. Closer’s photos seem to show a cross between 1988 U.S. presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his Rocky the Flying Squirrel tank helmet moment and a third-tier “Star Wars” storm trooper. If I were Hollande, I’d be more upset about how I looked in that helmet than about suing any magazine for finding out about any tryst.

It has not been “done” for French journalists to report on the personal perambulations of politicians. Indeed, the traditional French media are defending Hollande’s right to privacy and bad helmets and condemning Closer’s scampy actions. But, knowing how well political sex scandals play in places like the United States, you had to figure it was only a matter of time in this international Twitter age that at least some of the French decided their politicians and their l’affaires were more than fair game. That time appears to have arrived. And it appears to be a new game with all new rules.

Hollande and Trierweiler are scheduled to be feted at a White House state dinner next month. For as confoundedly puritanical as political sex scandal-loving Americans may be, the fact that the president and first lady of the United States are willing to host a foreign leader living with a partner in a union not marked by marriage, and a union that came about through the ending of one legal marriage (Trierweiler’s), says a great deal about how much more “French” we have become in our official mores. If Hollande decides to leave Trierweiler, bring Gayet to Washington, and is welcomed, that will mark another step in our movement away from the Puritans.

Perhaps we are moving toward a different sort of acceptance of political cheating. Most of the sex scandals that have rocked the U.S. have involved politicians who did not voluntarily leave their spouses. John Edwards did not marry Rielle Hunter. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not move in with his former housekeeper. Maybe some of us think it’s “OK” if the politician and his paramour make something honest out of the situation. Though I don’t know if Valerie Trierweiler (who many have said, unfairly or not, is reaping what she sowed) feels very honest these days.

We’ll see what Hollande, Gayet and even Trierweiler decide. I will say this much for the French. Their sex scandals really are more artful. At least to puritanical Americans.

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in Minneapolis. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”

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