The Hollande affair: Are the French becoming more puritanical?

In Britain, we’re discussing this affair as if it were the same kind of marital infidelity that characterised François Mitterrand’s behaviour towards his long-suffering wife, Danielle. If you recall, he had an second family and a daughter, Mazarine, by his mistress. That affair should have merited social censure, but it was, in the then customary French fashion, discussed by those who knew about it without ever becoming public knowledge. Funnily enough, it was the same photographer who captured François Hollande’s escapades who got the first pictures of Mazarine, though this time he didn’t wait for presidential consent to publish.

Both the French and the English seem to have drifted into a new censoriousness, which requires of a public figure simply that he should make his mind up about who, exactly, he’s sleeping with. (Alastair Campbell, discussing the issue, suggested that ‘it depends what the truth of these relationships is’; the approach he took with Robin Cook when he was outed was to get him to decide: wife or mistress.) We’re not too hung up on permanent commitment but we’re keen on serial monogamy. Formerly, you were married or you weren’t, though in situations of this kind you might end up marrying the mistress, as Prince Charles did. Marriage is a formal, unambiguous condition. What we’ve got now, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, is the more hazy concept of ‘partner’. It’s a drearier take on a lover or mistress, a non-censorious way of putting spouses and girlfriends on the same basis. The French word partner, interestingly, doesn’t have quite the same pseudo-marital status as the term does here. And the word maîtresse is used there more often, as is amie or girlfriend. Even so, they’re clearly prey to the same tedious idea: only monogamy will do.

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