Have the French really got it right with their laissez-faire attitude to infidelity?
As rumours of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni's affairs abound, Cassandra Jardine asks: is there something to be said for our Gallic neighbours' approach to extra-marital affairs?
Published 12/03/2010 | 05:00
The two Parisians I rang for a gossip were dismissive. In my salacious way I was itching to discuss the rumours that Carla Bruni and Nicolas Sarkozy are both having affairs -- she with heart-throb singer Benjamin Biolay; he with his stylish ecology minister, Chantal Jouanno.
The possibility that their marriage could be over, just two years after the president made the Italian supermodel-cum-chanteuse his First Lady, has all the ingredients of a thrilling yarn -- sex, power, glamour -- but my French confidantes were not amused.
"The French think nothing of it," said Agnes Poirier, a French writer. "It is only a rumour. It is a matter of privacy, and they can do what they want because it has nothing to do with politics. Because you cheat on your wife, it does not mean you will cheat on your country. That's the common opinion over here."
Crushed, I rang Lucy Wadham, British-born author of The Secret Life of France, based on 20 years' experience on the other side of the Channel. As a newly-wed, she describes being shocked when frequently propositioned for a spot of cinq à sept by her now ex-husband's friends. I felt sure she would enjoy chewing over the juicy details of the alleged Sarkozy indiscretions, not least the newspaper report that, a few weeks ago, Carla nipped off to Thailand with the singer and Sarko sent a private plane to bring her back.
Not a bit of it. "It's a telling sign that I've gone native," she said apologetically, "but these rumours were circulating in Paris two months ago. 'Do you know they have separated?' people were saying, but I didn't want to gossip about it because I believe, like the French, that people's love lives -- their jardins secrets -- aren't news."
Even the French newspapers, long controlled by strict privacy laws, almost seem to believe that. On Sunday Le Journal du Dimanche broke with tradition and ran a story about the tweets that revealed the Sarkozys' alleged infidelities; the following morning the article was removed from the website. Since then, pas un mot has been written in the French press. Online, it's a different story and, happily for us unreconstructed Anglo-Saxon lovers of tittle-tattle, Carla Bruni gave an interview to Sky News, which aired last night, in which she said that: "(My husband) would never have an affair."
Before the rumours started to circulate, that might have been taken as a sign of the seriousness of their vows to one another, despite her unwillingness in that interview to say whether marriage was "for ever". Now it looks like a carefully judged thrust in a game of one-upmanship, meaning that any rumours her husband might circulate of his own indiscretions are an attempt not to appear the hapless cuckold.
She, Carla, was the free spirit breaking away from the dreary protocol at the Elysée Palace, not to mention the need to wear flat shoes next to her diminutive, Cuban-heeled spouse.
No one will be surprised if the Sarko/Bruni marriage turns out not to be built on rock. Both had previously displayed romantic ruthlessness -- her former lovers include the father of the man whose son she gave birth to, while Sarkozy's courtship of Cecilia, his last wife, began when, as mayor of Neuilly, he married her to her previous husband. Nor was their relationship pre-tested before the wedding. Lonely, newly divorced Sarkozy married Bruni in February 2008, just four months after they met. Expectations of fidelity were always slight with a woman who, before her marriage, told an interviewer: "Monogamy bores me terribly."
Delicious though the details may be, faced with French disapproval it now seems terribly unsophisticated to dwell on them. What is more, our gleeful delight in the fragility of others' relationships may harm our own chances of happiness in marriage. As Poirier says: "If you are married, you swear fidelity, but it is not the end of the world if you have a few hiccups." It is certainly hard to disagree when Wadham says that cultural context makes infidelity easier to bear in France because: "If you aren't stigmatised by society for straying, it can't hurt as much."
Perhaps in this country we may need to reappraise our attitudes to fidelity now that we are living longer and vows have to cover as much as half a century.
Therapists increasingly believe that infidelity should not be condemned so much as analysed and discussed. Esther Perel, a New York counsellor, has led the way with her influential book Mating in Captivity, in which she advocates a more rational -- indeed French -- attitude to increase the chances of a happy marriage.
"Extra-marital affairs, she says, are a way for individuals to explore themselves and to revitalise a stale sex life. "Jealousy makes us value the other person."
"That sounds like an excuse," says clinical psychologist Roy Shuttleworth, whose own theory of infidelity is that couples stray because they need to maintain a distance from one another.
He tells the story of a bride and groom who were unfaithful on the eve of their wedding -- she with the best man, he with the bridesmaid -- because they were about to become so close; subconsciously, they needed distance, or so the theory goes.
It goes some way to explaining why many men stray when their wives are pregnant: "They know that the baby will bring them closer as a couple."
Janice Hiller, also a clinical psychologist, takes a different view: "Feelings of abandonment or neglect lead people to stray. If society was more tolerant, it would be easier for couples to explore how that came about."
Maybe, but straying is hardly recommended. However deep-seated the impulse, or universal the experience of being attracted to someone other than a spouse, infidelity causes great pain. Most people still see monogamy as the ideal. "We want someone special to us," says Kate Figes, author of Couples. "Some people cope by making rules about what is and isn't allowed. But with any sexual experience, there is the risk that you will become attached. 'Why do I need it?' people should ask themselves."
Nevertheless, even Paula Hall, who works in marriage counselling, believes there is something to be said for the French view of fidelity as desirable, but not always achievable.
It may even be true that, according to Pamela Druckerman's research for her book Lust in Translation, the French are actually less unfaithful than we are because they are more realistic about the difficulty of remaining faithful, especially when far from home. No French person would ever make such a public apology like that of Tiger Woods.
To the French, the absolute worst thing about the Sarko/Bruni rumours is that the couple have exposed themselves to such ridicule, firstly by being so public about their private life and now by generating the scandalous stories that are racing around the internet.
Discretion might be all. But in this country, gossip is hugely enjoyable.