The last few weeks have seen several high profile sex scandals among leading politicians — nothing new, really. Both men whose philandering was revealed were conservative, “family values” Republicans, for whom the revelations have likely begun the slow bleed of political irrelevance. Again, as it has been said many times over, the weakness of the flesh for those in power is not anything new, and frankly, rarely has it much to do with one’s ability to effective administer an executive or legislative office.
When I described the Sanford story to several French colleagues, disappearance and all, they looked nonplussed – “is that all?” they asked. The personal lives of French politicians, including fairly juicy sex-related tales, have been common knowledge for generations, they explained, but it rarely becomes serious political fodder.
The past three French Presidents, including current chef d’état Sarkozy, have each had one (or more) high profile sex scandals, but of the sort far beyond just run of the mill adultery and prostitutes. Indeed, they have usually been decades-long sagas that simmered beneath the surface of French political culture.
As put by British writer Philip Delves Broughton, however, “being discreet, French and worldly about adultery, unlike the sweaty-palmed Anglo-Saxons,” the French political class keeps issues of sex and family scandal below the surface as much as possible, “out of courtesy, [and] respect for a statesman’s private life.”
Let’s begin with former President Jacques Chirac, who led France for twelve years as President from 1995 to 2007, following a twenty year career as Prime Minister, Mayor of Paris, and Minister of Interior. Though once largely ignored by the French press, it is widely known that President Chirac has an illegitimate son, one that was for years supported with funds of the French state while being squirreled away in Japan. At the same time, even his wife has written and spoken publicly about Chirac’s both visual and physical appreciation of the fairer sex.
His predecessor, François Mitterrand, also maintained a second family. While he had maintained many a mistress over the years, the revelation of a secret Parisian daughter named Mazarine in the mid nineties followed nearly twenty years of mum from those in the know. The outcry that followed her discovery by the public was actually related to her being hidden from the country and the cost to national purse, rather than her “illegitimacy”. In fact, that Mitterrand’s illness in office was kept secret from the public until his death – he suffered from cancer for years, which eventually ended his life – angered the French people more than any sex-related issue.
The tradition of personal privacy for the French leadership has changed a bit in more recent years, though. In fact, Nicolas Sarkozy has managed to use his personal life to great political advantage in order to attract attention, maintain interest, and divert the public’s attention from controversial issues and problems of governance. His high-profile divorce, romance with Carla Bruni, several marriages and multiple children have become political assets, in fact, such that the opposition has tried to play them down. “France doesn’t give a damn about heart-broken political leaders. We have too many important things on our plate,” declared Arnaud Montebourg, a Socialist party member of Parliament. Indeed, the recent exposé of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s in-office predilections has sparked amusement more than dismay among the French populice.
The difference in style between the American and French models has often been attributed to religiosity and puritanism, with middle class white Americans often shocked and dismayed at the mere public discussion of sex. It is true, though, as pointed out in our previous discussions here (Nate and myself), that dereliction of duty, perceptions hypocrisy and misspending of public funds associated with scandals of a sexual nature are often the more damning facets of a politician’s fall from grace. Though less sensational, a leader whose sexual escapades interfere with his (or her) ability to govern is likely far more dangerous than a rampant philanderer who manages to do a good job in office (see Kennedy, John Fitzgerald).
Perhaps in the end, the French and American models are beginning to coalesce a bit, with the French becoming more tuned into the sensationalism of political smut, and Americans slowly becoming more stoic about the whole thing. If nothing else, being described as “sweaty-palmed” is enough to make me want to change my ways.
Renard Sexton is FiveThirtyEight’s international columnist and is based in Geneva, Switzerland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org