French Presidents, and the women who love them?
As I write this, the French politician sex scandal de jour involves France’s current president, M. Hollande, a man who will remind you much more of the nerdy accountant who prepares your taxes than some cinematic action hero or matinee idol. M. Hollande, who has fathered several children with former French presidential candidate Segoléne Royal, has apparently forsaken whatever fidelity that non-marital conjunction merits for a dalliance with French motion picture actress, Juliet Gayet, who is several years his junior. And between the two was yet another mistress, Valerie Trierweiller, who often appears as France’s (ahem) “First Lady.” It is much the chatter of the French media these days, although it likely has less to do with M. Hollande’s vacillating popularity numbers then with his approach to public policy. He is after all, a French, not American, politician and these sorts of amours are typically regarded with more insouciance in France. After all, isn’t he just following in the “tradition” of his predecessors M. Mitterand and M. Chirac and similarly undersized M. Sarkozy, who dumped his wife for a singer-supermodel? It is doubtless a tradition that predates the Fifth Republic.
After all, M. Hollande’s extra governmental affairs work closely preceded by those of M. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the erstwhile Managing Dir of the IMF, who probably would not be erstwhile were it not for his legal difficulties pursuant to sexual services he either obtained by funds or force from a New York hotel maid. As the story unfolded it was learned that M. Strauss-Kahn has a wife who apparently is quite accustomed to her husband’s libidinous adventures. But Americans are more easily shocked by such sexual escapades by short-statured nerdy-looking French politicians (that Corsican guy really started a trend), and it is far more difficult for American politicians and ministers to shake off their disclosure. The Americansavior vivre (if there even is such a thing) is not nearly as understanding as that of the French.*
But when I think of the sexual affairs of French presidents it is always Felix Faure (1841-1899) who jumps to mind. I recall reading about him in Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, during my time in Paris. It was in his office in the Élysée Palace, on 16 February 1899, that Faure expired suddenly from apoplexy, apparently due to the felicitous ministrations of his 30-year-old mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. It has been widely reported that Monsieur Faure had his fatal seizure while Steinheil was fellating him. At least that is the way the French like to remember it. It makes for better puns and jokes, resulting in various jeux de mots (puns) crafted by his political opponents. One such pun was to apply to Mme Steinheil the sobriquet “la pompe funèbre” (in French “pompes funèbres” means “mortician business,” but “pompe funèbre” could be translated, literally, as “funeral blow-job”). Political rival (and later Prime Minister) George Clemenceau’s nailed Faure with the pasquinade: “Il voulait être César, il ne fut que Pompée”(which could mean both “he wished to be Caesar, but ended up as Pompey”; the later a play on the verb “pomper” in French is also slang for a man to be “blown.” Okay, perhaps time to leave any further detail to imagination; but it is fair to say that a degree of this mockery could be tinged with envy. And there are a lot of worse ways of meeting one’s end.**
But it is still an apt way of relating to the sexual side of the French savior vivre. Generally, I got the idea that the French were a little different on this score when I first saw Brigitte Bardot in the buff in And God Created Women (1956). They seemed so at ease, so natural with it and, despite the complications with mistresses and the occasional pomper mortality, so amoral about it. I recall from my youth that the older guys (who were the highly mis-informative “sex instructors of my neighborhood) spoke about certain girls they claimed to know who “Frenched.” A young Catholic boy was going to have to find out what that verbification meant if it was to be admitted in the confessional. From there on everything “French” –French movies (which often appeared in the Catholic “Index” of forbidden pleasures), French dance (the Can-Can, ooh-la-la!), French fashion and fragrances—seemed tinged with eroticism. Not to forget French art: naked women having lunching on the grass with clothed men, Lautrec’s hookers and Gaugin’s predilection for tawny Polynesian babes were right up there provocatively with those National Geographic spreads on topless African women.
Later, I would encounter in my readings those bawdy French women that made the Parisian fin de siècle, such a fascinating time and place. Who else could better represent the cafes and dance halls of Montmartre and Pigalle that a personage like “La Goulue,” a dancer whose main features of her performance of the cahut were the port d’armes (holding one foot high above her head) and the grand écart (the splits)? She was born Louise Weber (ca 1865), but earned her sobriquet, “The Glutton,” reputedly for a variety of carnal excesses.
La Goulue lacked all the social graces other French girls might acquire in convent schools. She was from a hardscrabble life of the streets, a French meme preceded by sisters like Hugo’s Fantin and followed by Piaf. A contemporary source, journalist Georges Montorgeuil, described her from apparent close contact: “Pink and blonde, about 18 years old, with a willful vicious and ruddy hued baby face, a nose with quivering, impatient nostrils, the nose of one sniffing after love, nostrils dilating with the male odor of chestnut trees and the enervating bouquet of brandy glasses, a mouth gluttonous and sensual, a look shameless and provoking, a milky-white bosom freely escaping from her corsage, such was the little washerwoman who had rediscovered the can-can as though by instinct… She was the pretty girl unaware of any modesty or constraint.”*** There is something about that French feminine self-sufficiency that extends back to Jean D’Arc to La Marianne.
Who else but the French, it seemed, would come up with a synecdoche like cinq a sept (once I learned what that meant)? Extra-marital paramours no doubt date back to at least Adam and Eve; but the idea of setting aside two whole hours in the day for ask-no-questions liaisons of the affluent Frenchman with his mistress is quite French (and certainly preferable to spending that time at the gym to “unwind” after a stressful day at the office). Then dash home to dinner with a tolerant wife. So civilized, so modern, so French.
The cinq a sept might have had to modernize a bit for the modern world since those more leisurely gay nineties. “In Paris, no one makes love in the evening any more; everyone is too tired.” Francoise Sagan’s seemed to lament in her novel, La Chamade (1967), the story of a mistress. The new hours for love in the afternoon seem to have been moved up to deux a quatre to account for Paris traffic jams that make it virtually impossible for the suburban Frenchman to have his cinq a sept and still get home in time to dine with his family. But now the lusty lover must sacrifice the long leisurely lunch of the past to rush to that danger zone that was the undoing of poor Felix Faure.
In fact, the toleration of French wives for their husband’s deux a quatre might have another side to it, a Madame Bovary side. As Sagan was told by a Parisian housewife that during these two lust-filled hours (and before the children return from school at 4:30) “”You tell your husband you must go to the hairdresser. Then, instead, you send your wig [out] and stay home to receive your lover. You retrieve the wig later and appear properly coiffed for your husband. Neat.” The wig might be a bit of an anachronism these days, but it is clear that French women are clever enough should they elect, in the tradition of Madame Bovary, or then more substantial, say, Georges Sand, to play at their own liasons dangereuses. Then again, the “no questions asked” to give account for the hours of lust, is, in past or present French savior vivre, a mutually appreciated artifice. In one account of such arrangements for the French wife it just might be “a very French way of managing your man. (When a Frenchman lies to his wife, she assumes he may have strayed, but actually wants to save the marriage; otherwise he wouldn’t go to all this trouble. There are few more terrifying words to a French wife than: ‘Darling, there’s something I must tell you…’)”****
© 2014, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 1.22.2014)