Dave Robbins: Having a mistress in France is not compulsory, but it is almost expected
It was a fine day in late summer and the air seemed full of hope. I was in France, driving east from Toulouse, and then tracking northwards through the stately valleys of the Languedoc.
I had landed the not entirely unpleasant job of house-sitting a maison bourgeois near the village of Montaigu-de-Quercy. It had a pool and a games room and a housekeeper who came once a week.
The housekeeper was there to show me around. The heating system was very French (ie temperamental and given to going on strike) and the pool filter was incomprehensible to the northern European mind.
There was a well on the property, and when we passed close to it, the housekeeper paused. I asked what was the matter. "That's where she threw the monsieur's tools," she said.
"What monsieur?" I asked. "What tools? Why did she throw them down the well? And who is 'she'?"
We went into the kitchen of the main house and made coffee, and she told me the story of the previous owners.
He was an English craftsman. Quiet type, hardly spoke a word. She was from Moissac (not far away, but referred to with the same shrug as if she had been from Japan). They had bought the house when it was in ruins and worked for two years solid to restore it.
But the English craftsman began an affair with the wife of the baker in a nearby town. He began to come home with flour on his collar and icing sugar in the turn-ups of his trousers.
His wife confronted him. There was a terrible row. She screamed at him and beat him with her fists. And then she took his tool bag and threw it down the well.
The housekeeper sat back, exhausted by her tale. She took a sip of her coffee and leaned towards me. "She was a little mad, no?" she said.
In that little phrase was revealed the difference between the French and the rest of the world when it comes to marital fidelity. The housekeeper was on the husband's side; the wife had over-reacted, n'est-ce-pas?
To the French, a little affair here and there, indulged in by either or both parties in a marriage, is nothing. One of those circumstances, unpleasant perhaps, yet inevitable, that French people greet with a shrug. "Ça arrive," they say. "These things happen."
I remember once renting a small apartment in the Marais district in Paris. There was a large double bed just inside the door, an ornate piece of Chinoiserie with mirrors built in to the canopy.
I raised an eyebrow to the estate agent. He shrugged. "Un cinq-a-sept," he said, meaning the kind of apartment a rich man would buy for his mistress and visit her there between five and seven pm, between leaving work and arriving home to his family.
In France, keeping a mistress may not be compulsory, but it is almost expected. Discretion is advisable. President Mitterrand, for instance, was discreet. President Hollande, as last week's debacle over the three women in his life showed, is not.
And yet the furore in France over the revelation that President Hollande has a mistress as well as a partner as well as the mother of his children was not so much about the morality of it as the surprise of it.
Hollande's presidency so far has been characterised by stagnation. He seems incapable of decisive action. He is a man of the Left and possibly therefore more fond of talking than acting. He may also be beset by the perennial question of the French public intellectual: that's all very well in practice, but will it work in theory?
That such a man, meek and demure, small and neat and rather unremarkable, should be able to capture and keep the affections of three intelligent and attractive women at more or less the same time is the mystery at the heart of the scandal.
How does he do it? Well, as the housekeeper in the Languedoc said about the English craftsman, it's always the quiet ones, eh?