French laws on privacy afford protection to everyone — presidents and CEOs as well as secretaries and football players. But the widely-accepted rules of the affair in France also mean that players should be discreet enough for affairs to remain invisible, even to close companions and partners.
However, friends will cheerfully discuss their affairs with each other — in complete confidence of course. French people perceive their social environment as tolerant and permissive, so that they can rely on tacit (or even active) support for any affairs. Three-quarters of the French believe that their close friends would favour extramarital flings and affairs: they would certainly not seek to dissuade anyone.
Within Europe, the French have possibly the most permissive views on affairs and casual flings, which are taken for granted as something that happen throughout life, if you are lucky.
Two-thirds of Frenchmen and half of French women believe that sexual attraction inevitably leads to intimacy; two-thirds of men and one-third of women agree that sex and love are two separate things; two-fifths of the French think love does not require complete sexual fidelity; and one-quarter even believe that transitory infidelities can strengthen love.
So the French are five times more likely than the Italians (their closest rivals in hedonism) to see flings and affairs as beneficial, overall. Surveys suggest something like 25% of men and women in France are enjoying casual flings and affairs at any one time.
National surveys of sexual attitudes and behaviour in France automatically include a chapter on affairs and how they are conducted (unlike the staid British reports). Survey reports confirm that the first two years of a relationship are the ‘honeymoon’ period, but affairs start anytime after that, for men and women, in first and in subsequent marriages, at any age.
Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, is understandably upset, enough to withdraw to a hospital, but she can hardly be surprised at the media allegations.
Her serious affair with Hollande started while he was still known as the long-term partner of Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children, his political ally and competitor all rolled into one.
However the vast majority of affairs in continental countries are what I call playfairs — short but sweet diversions from day-to-day realities and obligations. They do not lead to a change of spouse. Indeed the French have developed the affair into an art form, with conventions on romantic dinners, elegant lunches, gifts, weekend trips to exotic and glamorous places like Venice or Istanbul. As one Frenchman noted, offering an exciting weekend away in an attractive destination always secured a seduction.
In contrast, women in Puritan Anglo-Saxon cultures are more likely to regard such an invitation as sexual harassment rather than a compliment – especially if it comes from their boss. Frenchwomen point out that you can always say no, politely and regretfully, to avoid hurting a man’s ego. So where is the victim? Frenchwomen positively welcome compliments on their appearance (as do men), whereas women in Britain and America may treat such personal compliments as inappropriate, even aggressive.
But why else do we invest in looking good, if not to attract admirers? Most continental men and women want people to notice their efforts.
Affairs get a negative press in Anglo-Saxon countries, where they are discussed in terms of infidelity, adultery, cheating, dishonesty, and betrayal. This Puritan approach to relationships can turn marriage into a prison, by insisting that marriage entails absolute sexual fidelity.
Four-fifths of people in Britain condemn affairs as always wrong — even though two-thirds do not regard sex as a central part of marriage. The consequence is an over-reaction to discovery of sexual infidelities, and high divorce rates, leading to serial monogamy across life. For over three decades, about half of all first marriages in the USA have ended in divorce. Britain follows closely, with one-third of first marriages failing.
In the southern European view, marriage is a more flexible relationship — it is essentially about children, property and inheritance, so marriage is for life, pretty much; but where necessary both spouses find friends and lovers outside the marriage. There is no assumption that spouses must fulfil all of each other’s needs, all of the time, exclusively. Divorce is frowned on, and much less common. French and Italian marriages end in divorce less often than almost anywhere else in the Western world.
Tolerance of affairs is linked to a greater emphasis on sexuality and seduction as central to life’s pleasures in France. The art of seduction is practiced by everyone, from presidents courting votes to salespeople seeking customers. It is considered an essential skill for a civilised person — an idea that might be well understood in Ireland. The importance of sexuality is attested to by the fact that French hospitals automatically give mothers of newborns lessons in pelvic exercises before they leave hospital — to ensure that new mothers get back into shape for love-making as soon as possible.
As a result, there are stories of young mothers with infants in pushchairs who set out to seduce attractive men for casual flings, as well as stories of elegant older women who seduce the athletic tennis coaches and young swimming pool attendants in Club Med holiday resorts. The serial affairs of French presidents are just part of life’s rich pattern.
The French have many terms for affairs: aventures, petites aventures and vagabondage. These adventures outside marriage may be accepted or ignored, routine or exceptional, but are normally conducted with discretion, with consideration for the dignity of the spouse who must never be embarrassed in any way. In the hedonistic or libertine perspective, affairs should be tolerated, with everyone turning a blind eye to them, so long as they are properly discreet. And of course there is equal opportunity for both spouses to have their flings. It is the carnival spirit of occasional delicious transgression and excess followed by a return to normality.
lDr Hakim is a social scientist and commentator whose book The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power is published by Gibson Square.