Why can’t Americans be more like the French? The slightly mangled line from My Fair Lady is inspired by the fascination with which we in the United States have viewed the sexual peccadilloes of assorted leaders as compared with how such behaviour is perceived by the French.
On June 18, 2007, France had an election featuring beautiful women and assorted men in the two parties competing for the presidency. On one side was Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal and her partner of more than 20 years, François Hollande. During their time together they had four children and to all outward appearances were to live happily ever after. Within hours after the polls closed, the end of the partnership was announced. Mr. Holland said the separation was a private affair. A book published after the election quoted Ms. Royale as saying that: “I asked François Hollande to leave our home, to pursue his love interest, which is now laid bare in books and newspapers, on his own.” The whole parting seemed, at least from this side of the Atlantic, remarkably tasteful.
Not to be outdone, her opponent and his wife-followed suit. During the campaign Cécilia Sarkozy, wife of Union for a Popular Movement candidate Nicolas Sarkozy was noticeably absent. Following the election she briefly played the role of first lady of France visiting Libya where she participated in obtaining the release of 6 health care workers who had been detained in Libya since 2004. Following their release she concluded that the world of politics was not for her, ended her marriage to Nicolas and resumed her relationship with Richard.
Divorced in October, Mr. Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, a singer and former model whom he met in November 2007 were wed on February 2, 2008. Upon learning of her former husband’s marriage, instead of marrying in June as originally planned, Cécilia and Richard were married on March 22, and had a big reception the following day. One paper described the wedding as a “revenge”, wedding, Ms. Sarkozy having been annoyed that Mr. Sarkozy’s new wife was 10 years younger than she. How rushing the wedding corrects this perceived slight is unclear.
Both French partings were civilized. No prostitutes, no sad spouses standing stolidly by, and no stoical statements by any of the parties. Compare similar events on this side of the Atlantic. There are more examples from which to choose space in a column such as this.
Kwame Kilpatrick had a bright future. He is the mayor of Detroit. If he lived in France he would still have a bright future since it would have been unnecessary to lie about explicit e mails he and another government worker exchanged that affected no one but their respective partners. The city would not have negotiated the settlement of a whistleblower lawsuit that cost Detroit millions of taxpayer dollars. He and his wife would have said their private lives were their private lives. Instead he may be going to jail, not for sex but for lying about sex.
From Detroit we move to New York where two governors have made the news. Upon becoming governor on March 17th of this year, David Paterson held a press conference in which he described the challenges facing New York. On March 18 he held a press conference with his wife, Michelle, in which he described challenges they faced during their marriage including their respective acts of adultery. The affairs were consensual and no one had to pay anything as a result of the companionship or its disclosure thus making it more French than American.
Eliot Spitzer, former governor of New York is, of course, the pre-eminent example of how the French don’t do it. He was robbed of his dignity and because of his behavior lost a good post-mortem photo opportunity.
If Eliot lived in France he could have had as many lovers as he wanted and still prosecuted prostitution rings in his official capacity without being called a hypocrite. Instead of standing awkwardly with a stalwart wife by his side, confessing to the fact that he had to pay for the kind of friendship many people routinely enjoy, he would have said with great dignity that he had begun an affair with X, but remained deeply in love with his wife and would/would not be divorcing her and would/would not marry his new friend. By consorting, instead, with prostitutes he deprived himself and his family of a dramatic post-death photo opportunity such as enjoyed by François Mitterand.
It is impossible to forget the touching images published around the world at François Mitterand’s funeral. Standing side by side, sadly viewing the coffin, were Messieur Mitterand’s wife, Danielle, and his mistress, Anne Pigeot and their illegitimate daughter, Mazarine. It was a touching scene, one Mr. Spitzer could not look forward to even if his nocturnal wanderings had not come to light. That’s because prostitutes don’t do funerals.