The old stereotype is that puritanical American voters obsess about their leaders' sex lives while the French can't be bothered. Take, for instance, the contrast between Bill Clinton, whose extramarital affair dominated American politics for years, and Francois Mitterrand, who was somehow able to spend most of the nights of his presidency staying with a second family without the press, public or political opposition taking notice. (Both “widows” attended his funeral.)
But for a country that supposedly doesn't care about politicians' sex lives, we seem to hear an awful lot about French politicians' sex lives. A policy address by deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande this week was overshadowed by tabloid reports that he has been having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. First lady Valerie Treirweiler has been hospitalized for unclear reasons.
Hollande was supposed to be Monsieur Normal, an appealingly bland return to sanity after the tabloid distractions of the Nicolas Sarkozy years. But his messy personal life has been on display almost from the beginning with his partner, Trierweiler, carrying on a very public feud with Hollande's ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal.
It's true that 77 percent of French voters say the affair should be a personal matter and 84 percent say it won't change their (very negative) opinion of Hollande. But with all due respect to the French, I don't buy this for a second. The gossip magazine Closer sold out the issue featuring photos of Hollande pulling up to Gayet's apartment. The first question at this week's press conference, which was supposed to be devoted to policy issues, from the head of the Presidential Press Association, was whether Trierweiler is still first lady. (Hollande ducked it.) It's true that the mainstream media in France was slow to jump on this until the Closer photos forced the issue, but the blogosphere has been buzzing about Holland and Gayet for almost a year.
To be sure, the French aren't quite Americans yet. It's almost impossible to imagine the global-media-dominating seismic Drudgequake that would result Barack Obama were ever photographed being dropped off by motorcycle at a Hollywood starlet's apartment. The U.S. hasn't even elected an unmarried president since James Buchanan, much less one who has had relationships with three different very famous women, none of whom he has married.
But in terms of the media's attitude toward what's acceptable to cover about presidents, things haven't actually been this way in the U.S. for that long. John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt would find today's U.S. media about as uncomfortable as Mitterrand. U.S. voters are fairly realistic about this, with the majority saying that greater scrutiny rather than falling morals are the reason why there are more political sex scandals today.
The French may never have been quite as blasé about political sex as they like to pretend, but a number of factors including the Internet and the British and American tabloid media's insatiable hunger for French sex scandals are making it harder for the mainstream French media to downplay these stories or for French citizens to act like they're not interested.
Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international news, social science and related topics. He was previously an editor at Foreign Policy magazine.