L'amour French Style

French Pres. Hollande's partner, mistress and ex-wife say a lot about l'amour.

Posted Jan 19, 2014

The recent scandal swirling around French President Francois Hollande is yet another sign that the French really do think differently about love and marriage than Americans do. First there are the facts of the matter. Eight years ago, Hollande left Ségolène Royal, his partner of thirty years and mother to their four children, to partner with Valerie Trierweiler. Hollande declared Trierweiler to be the "love of his life" and so they rode off into the sunset and life in the presidential palace together. So far we are within the realm of the American imagination—although difficult to believe an American president could leave his wife and move his mistress into the White House, there was at least a "true love" at the end of the story.

First Lady/partner Ms. Trierweiler sometimes seemed more the wicked stepmother than the beautiful new queen. Trierweiler was not above petty jealousy. Right after Hollande became president, Trierweiler came out publicly in support of Royal's opponent in a local election. Clearly not good at the whole idea of sharing her man, Ms. Trierweiler collapsed last week when news of Hollande's affair with the actress Julie Gayet became public. Treirweiler checked into a Paris hospital, where Hollande told his partner that he will be asking her to move out of the Elysee Palace to make room for his new amour Gayet. 

Hollande became president by running as "Mr. Normal" and perhaps given that this is France, his sex life is normalish. After all, the French marry at a fraction of the rate Americans do and are much more likely to see marriage as an outdated institution. Still, even within French culture, Mr. Normal's personal life was exceptionally complicated. For years Treirweiler and her partner were best friends to both Royal and Hollande. Then later, Treirweiler began an affair with Hollande, attacking Royal in her articles for Paris Match. Perhaps even more abnormal is the sham loving marriage that Royal and Hollande performed during her election bid in 2007.

Yet despite the twisted love triangle—now quadrangle—that is Mr. Normal's private life, there is zero percent chance that any of this would lead to his resignation or even a decline in popularity. Indeed, 77% of French people surveyed believe Hollande's affair with Gayet to be a private matter and another poll showed that Hollande's popularity, at a historical low last fall, had actually gone up a couple of percentage points since news of the affair broke. 

In order to understand l’amour French style, it is important to remember that it is America, not France, that is out of sync with other industrialized nations. In most of the EU countries and Canada, marriage rates have been falling. Having a leader who is not married is not a scandal. It is normal. But more to the point, America (and England) have long judged a politician by his ability to not have sex outside of marriage. Indeed, the sexual discipline of monogamy has, at least since the Victorian period, been seen as a sign that a man has other types of discipline, like work discipline. Of course, some of the most truly evil leaders in history may have been faithful husbands and there is little evidence that sexual discipline makes a person a better political leader. But in the US and England this claim was central to a new sort of middle-class masculinity that formed with the Industrial Revolution. This new man, this “market man,” claimed he was qualified to lead because he worked hard- at everything- not just his job. And part of what he worked hard at was sexual and other forms of physical discipline.

This is why successful national politicians in the US are rarely philanderers and even more rarely out of shape. We believe good leaders are men who can discipline their bodies—in the gym and in the marital bed. As for the French, they will judge Hollande on his policies, which is too bad for him since they mostly have not been working. And we Americans will continue to believe that being a good husband is a necessary quality in a good president. We will also get married and divorced at much higher rates than the French. That is love American style. Vive la difference!

About the Author

Laurie Essig, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology and women and gender studies at Middlebury College.

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