IN theatre, a farce involves a far-fetched plot and a series of unfortunate coincidences. The most common version is the bedroom farce, heavily reliant on dropped trousers, red faces, revolving doors and furtive sexual pairings.
In the theatre of life, the confluence of so many slapstick elements is unusual. Where they do occur, they tend to be regarded as almost too improbable to credit. Which brings us to the pillion-riding, helmet-disguising, fresh croissant-loving French president who is publicly juggling two women. Not adeptly.
A Lothario no longer -- in fact, exposed as a bit of a cad -- he crouches behind privacy laws, while two successful, intelligent, good-looking women wait for him to toss a coin and decide who should be his first lady.
The stakes are high, of course, which may explain their apparent passivity. Still, from a public accountability perspective, it is bizarre that Francois Hollande can pull a Gallic shrug -- saying he'll let the French people know in due course which of the two will accompany him on an official visit to Washington next month. First, he needs to make up his mind, or so it would seem.
In an ideal world, both women would tell him to take that US trip and shove it up his Elysee Palace. But if an ideal world existed, a 59-year-old man holding the highest office wouldn't dither over swapping his current official companion for a younger model while the world looks on, not troubling to hide its titters.
And let us bear in mind that Valerie Trierweiler, the present title-holder, has been admitted to hospital apparently suffering from depression.
"She needs to recover after the shock she received. She needs quiet," according to her office.
We don't know if the shock is due to her other half's infidelity, or to revelations about it. However, humiliation is a bitter pill, especially when swallowed in the glare of unblinking public attention. Perhaps she was aware of her non-conjugal partner's non-conjugal visits to that borrowed Paris apartment but turned a blind eye until everyone else was in on the secret.
Generously, Hollande has promised to clarify Trierweiler's position. As soon as he's clear about it himself. Such a decisive president. Such a caring man.
A willingness to keep the women in his life dangling -- suspended in a state of mortification and confusion -- is an appealing characteristic in neither a lover nor a leader. It betrays him as weak and vacillating.
Self-centred, too. He isn't waffling on about sorting this out behind closed doors because he wants to avoid causing more hurt; he's sizing up which scenario will impact least negatively on him.
And to think, during his 2012 election campaign, he criticised predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy for his headline-heavy private life. If elected, Hollande promised to be irreproachable. Only Trierweiler has the right to reproach him for infidelity. But others are entitled to question his judgment in the handling of this shoddy episode.
Blind to the hypocrisy, he has planted a rather grubby flag on the moral high ground; prickly with indignation as he complains about his private life being invaded. Yet he is the one leaving both Trierweiler and Julie Gayet in no-man's land while he ponders who to choose and who to discard. It would be helpful if a presidential aide explained quietly that he is dealing with human beings, not arm candy.
Some might argue that it's irrelevant who he's sleeping with. But there ought to be no ambiguity about the identity of his official companion, especially as taxpayers underwrite her position: the current incumbent (or is she?) has an office in the Elysee Palace and a staff of five, at a cost to the French exchequer of €20,000 a month.
Life can be complicated. Sometimes people -- even presidents -- fall in love with those they ought not to. Life can trip anybody up that way. Falling in love isn't wrong per se, it's what happens next that counts.
Does desire always trump everything, including responsibilities? Can the wounds it inflicts on others be discounted as collateral damage?
And what about the evasions required to manage an affair? A liaison demands calculation, manipulation and guile.
Everyone is capable of dishonesty. But if people develop the habit of lying in one sphere, it's easier to do it in others. With politicians, there is the added vulnerability that secrets leave them open to blackmail or other forms of corruption.
It's been said of Hollande that his ability to attract substantial women is a sign that power acts as an aphrodisiac. But what's really desirable in a man is not power, but strength of character: sticking with something, even when the going gets tough -- or else accepting that it's broken and can't be mended.
What's deeply unattractive is trying to have it both ways.
Anyone can be tempted. Indeed, the man or woman who never feels its siren call must be a boring individual. But how people respond to temptation is a measure of their pedigree.
So, back to politicians: clearly, we apply stricter standards to their behaviour than to our own. However, politicians hold extensive power -- their decisions affect our lives and that's why sex scandals topple them, from Profumo to Berlusconi.
At the core of this French affair is a breach of trust rather than bedroom antics spiced up with scooters and motorbike helmets. If politicians can't be relied on to respect their nearest and dearest, public confidence in them to have the nation's best interests at heart is undermined. And at that point, a farce is no longer a laughing matter.