French news has been full of politically incorrect topics lately, from antisemitism from the comic Dieudonné, to rumors of teaching ‘gender theory’ in French primary schools. But it’s been a while since I’ve seen something in France that truly shocked me.
Well last week, I found something. It was while I was walking through the subway station and read the following advertisement in passing :
I stopped in front of the poster for a minute, contemplating the term extra-conjugale and then said to myself ‘no, that can’t be right. This can’t be an advertisement for an extra-marital dating site’.
Alas, it is. I checked with a French person to make sure I hadn’t misinterpreted the poster. No, and what’s more, these kind of sites are apparently à la mode right now, people are ‘owning up to’ infidelity.
Before discussing this further, I’d like to delve deeper into the text of the poster itself. It uses the cheeky imagery of a bitten apple, and the text at the top Par principe nous ne proposons pas de carte de fidelité (On principle, we don’t offer a rewards card). This plays on the term carte de fidelité which is the term in French for a rewards card. The pun is in the use of the word fidelité, or ‘faithfulness’ French.
What I think is particularly interesting is the text at the bottom:
Le 1er site de rencontres extra-conjugales pensé par des femmes (the first extra-marital dating site created by women)
Basically, this text tells us that it is not the first website of its kind, but it’s the first designed by women. In other words, it’s an advertisement for something that has been around, and this service is just trying to present it in a new way (like any new product).
First, what I think shocked me about the poster was simply the visibility of something that is typically taboo, especially in American culture. I know Americans associate seduction and even extra-marital affairs with the French, but to see it being advertised so openly in the subway, and as a new, improved version of such a website, is frankly surprising.
Coincidentally, I saw this poster not long after the French president, François Hollande, was discovered of having an affair with a French actress, to the surprise of his longtime partner Valérie Trierweiler. His affair exploded in French media and his partner immediately left him, previously unaware of his extended affair.
Seeing this type of political indiscretion is a rarity in French media, which is often highly protective of the private lives of politicians (or rather, the legal system is very protective of them). It’s uncommon to see a president’s private life displayed so spectacularly for the public eye, and seeing Valérie Trierweiler’s strong reaction only confirmed the rumors.
Hollande’s recent visit to the US was highly publicized in France, and one of the major points reported on in French news was the White House’s attempt to adapt to Hollande’s recent single status. I actually heard the news presenter talking about the new place cards being made for the formal dinner, since Valérie Trierweiler was no longer coming.
On French radio they had even interviewed Americans to see their opinion on this. One woman said she understood the situation for the French president (or rather tolerated it, I suppose), but added that she would be very disappointed if such a scandal were discovered with Obama, mentioning that his was the example of a ‘model family’.
In France, when the Hollande scandal came to light, although Hollande has no young children, no one was wagging their finger claiming that he had disappointed French citizens by his choices. Hollande never represented a ‘model family,’ anyway. Him and Trierweiler were never married, something that I think is hard to imagine for an American president in the first place. The biggest effort was made to cover up the scandal, remove any media coverage from newsstands and the internet, and basically to help the president save face and get back to normal. People were more surprised by the backlash of the whole thing than his actual choices.
The only statement that Hollande made after the discovery of the scandal was that he was ‘putting an end’ to his ‘shared life’ with Trierweiler. No apologies, no admitting he had done something wrong or hurtful, and no reference to why. In other words, no accountability to the public. I’m reminded, in contrast, of former North Carolina Senator John Edward’s scandal, in which the public discovered he had had an extra-marital affair which he first denied, and later confirmed. He even had a child from the affair which he had to claim as his own. All of which came to light while his wife was battling breast cancer. I remember this particular indiscretion because I saw one of the many interviews with Edwards in which he, almost embarrassingly in my opinion, admitted to wrongdoing and apologized publicly. While it sounds like it was a sticky affair, I also didn’t feel that the North Carolina Senator owed me personally an apology for his actions. There’s even a Wikipedia page about it.
So what does all this mean? Do we tolerate French infidelity, because we think it’s, well French, and would we tolerate the same behavior from our own president? Probably not. We certainly have out own fair share of politicians behaving badly in the US, but when it goes public, there is always the need for the politician to publicly apologize, to address the people about his/her indiscretion, ideally with his/her spouse supportive on the side.
And on the French side, are the French really more comfortable with extra-marital affairs and cheating? If they’re willing to advertise for sites that promote extra-marital affairs, there must be a level of tolerance that doesn’t exist in the United States and probably won’t exist anytime soon. In my opinion, it’s not so much the behavior itself but the acceptance or respect for private life. For certain things, especially when it comes to romantic affairs, the French just figure that each person makes his/her own choices and it’s not anyone else’s business. Sometimes affairs and cheating are seen as things that just ‘happen’ in a relationship and socially there is less demand for accountability.
Maybe when the first American extra-marital dating site appears I’ll be able to make a closer comparison, but until then, Gleeden.com will have to be my reference.
For more on the Trierweiler Hollande scandal, see: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/26/francois-hollande-valerie-trierweiler-split