Yes, yes, many important economic and foreign policy issues await discussion by the leaders of the U.S. and France during President Francois Hollande’s state visit to the White House on Tuesday.
But in their appearances together and at the dinner in the Frenchman’s honor, one question will cross many people’s minds: What in the world do women see in him?
This isn’t a question that would be asked about the buff and almost ostentatiously uxorious Barack Obama. We’re talking about the “short man with a bit of a paunch,” as French reporters describe their Socialist president. On his motor scooter, his black lace-up shoes the only giveaway, he could be a professor of sociology on his way to teach at the Ecole Normale Superieure. So why do Hollande’s sexual escapades continue to hold fascination for the intellectual elite in France and abroad?
For one thing, the mistresses of the nondashing Hollande tend to be dashing themselves: first, the once “radiant” Segolene Royal, the Socialist politician who is the mother of his four children (they never married); then Valerie Trierweiler, a political journalist (they never married); and now Julie Gayet, the actress who ignited the scandal one evening in mid-January when a helmeted Hollande was spotted alighting from a motor scooter in front of her apartment (there hasn’t been time yet for them to not marry).
We have learned that all Le President’s Women isn’t about the sex, or not just about the sex. What distinguishes Hollande’s affairs is class. Not for the president of France the prostitutes and women of dubious provenance, the White House interns and weird acolytes of Carlos Danger, who have brought down or humiliated so many American politicians. Hollande isn’t Client No. 9. His companions radiate chic.
Anyway, how unusual is it for a man of such considerable power to have a girlfriend, or two, on the side? It isn’t as if French presidents, or the French in general, have ever been known for sexual austerity. Consider Hollande’s predecessors. Nicolas Sarkozy took up with the glamorous Carla Bruni after his divorce from his glamorous second wife; Jacques Chirac’s dalliances were widely known; Francois Mitterrand secretly had a child by his mistress. It would be hard to find a king in the line of Louis who didn’t have adulterous dalliances. (Louis III died after falling off his horse — the scooter of the 9th century — in pursuit of a girl. He wasn’t married though, so I guess he doesn’t count.)
When it comes to sex, the French are different from you and me. It’s a theme in their literature, from the experiments of the Marquis de Sade to that classic of sado-masochism, “Histoire d’O,” and the louche novels of Michel Houellebecq, with their forays into sex tourism. Then there is “The Sexual Life of Catherine Millet,” a self-billed autobiographical account of orgies and other sexual practices of the Paris intelligentsia. (One pastime involved forming automobile caravans in the Bois de Boulogne and driving to a private house for anonymous group sex.)
Probity isn’t part of it. Like most politicians, Hollande lies. Running against Sarkozy, he declared: “I, president of the republic, will make sure that my behavior is exemplary at every moment.” It depends what the meaning of “exemplary” is. And he throws his weight around, putting Gayet on an arts jury until protests erupted and she was forced to withdraw. He dispenses patronage, installing Trierweiler in the “madam wing” of the Elysee Palace. But isn’t that how the system works? In Diane Johnson’s Paris-based novel, “Le Divorce,” the young American mistress gets an Hermes Kelly bag, which every French woman recognizes as the adulterer’s gift.
The main criticism of Hollande isn’t that his conduct is immoral, but that it’s undignified. “He looks totally ridiculous,” said Sarkozy (who had set his own standard for looking totally ridiculous). Bruni’s mother piled on, saying Hollande was a “jerk.”
“This makes the French look like idiots,” the proprietress of a restaurant in Tulle, the city in central France where Hollande served as mayor, complained to the New York Times.
In anticipation of a long-scheduled meeting with Pope Francis, Le Monde ran a cartoon that depicted the president arriving for his audience on a scooter with two women on the back. “Who am I to judge?” the pope says.
But the zealous attention to his sex life hasn’t been all bad for Hollande. Seventy-seven percent of French voters considered the affair a private matter and disapproved of the panting coverage. In fact, his low approval rating briefly rose after revelations of the affair, especially among women. Men who misbehave, it seems, are sexy.
It’s in other areas that Hollande gets into trouble. When tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris and Lyon last Sunday to register their objections to the government’s liberal policies on gay rights (surrogate parenthood, non!). By Monday, his government had shelved a “family reform bill” on the grounds that it needed more work.
Yet on his trip to Washington, everyone will want a glimpse of this man whom women love, who disregards social norms and does what he wants. He’s kind of a jerk. So what? Most of us are.
Trierweiler once called her ex-lover a “normal man” and meant it as a compliment. For all the commotion, that’s just what he is, in France anyway.
James Atlas is the author of “Bellow: A Biography” and “My Life in the Middle Ages: A Survivor’s Tale,” among other books.