Skip to main content

French shrug at Petraeus' adultery

By Matthew Fraser, Special to CNN
updated 5:05 PM EST, Tue November 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew Fraser: The French don't see what's all the fuss is in the Petraeus scandal
  • Fraser: It's impossible to imagine a French leader resigning because of adultery
  • He says the French are baffled at American prurience and "puritanism"
  • Fraser: In France, politicians can betray spouse without being suspected of screwing voters

Editor's note: Matthew Fraser is a professor of communications at the American University of Paris and is completing a book about French society.

(CNN) -- The unexpected resignation of David Petraeus as head of the CIA must have come as a shock to many Americans, especially given his impeccable record as a distinguished military commander. But like the greatest heroes from Shakespeare, it would appear that he was not exempt from the time-honored temptations of human folly and self-destruction.

And now the plot is thickening, as details emerge that Gen. John Allen, the commander of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, is involved somehow in the scandal.

As Americans are coming to terms with the revelation of Petraeus' adultery, on the other side of the Atlantic, the feeling among the French can be summed up by a blasé shrug.

Matthew Fraser
Matthew Fraser

Every time a steamy sexual intrigue is laid bare near the corridors of Washington power, the French don't see what all the fuss is about. It's only sex, after all. It's impossible to imagine a French political leader resigning because of an extramarital indiscretion. If this rule were observed, the French parliament would be nearly vacant.

The Petraeus affair: A lot more than sex

The past five French presidents are known to have had at least one -- and in some cases, many more -- mistresses throughout their political career. The current resident of the Elysée Palace, Francois Hollande, has been caught in the middle of an embarrassing dispute between his previous and current female companions. The French, long used to regarding their leaders with cynical detachment, have been following this tormented domestic feud with interest and maybe some contempt.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The details of Petraeus' sexual dalliance with his own biographer, Paula Broadwell, are unquestionably fascinating. Still, the French like to consider themselves blithely indifferent to bedroom antics, even when those involved are married to other people.

Opinion: How Petraeus courted the press

Le Monde, the intellectually self-important leftist newspaper, noted that the Petraeus affair quickly jumped from the pages of the respectable New York Times to those of the gossipy tabloid New York Post. In other words, while the Petraeus scandal may indeed be a legitimate affair of state because of the sensitivity of his position at the summit of the CIA, what really interests Americans are the juicy details of the four-star Army general's sexual conquest.

French bafflement at American prurience has a history -- from Bill Clinton's anteroom encounters with White House intern Monica Lewinsky to the more recent misadventures of Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner. All have ended with abject confessions.

Broadwell explains access to Petraeus
Marks: Petraeus let his guard down
Who is Paula Broadwell?

The French usually attribute this American ritual of guilt and contrition to "puritanism." This is meant as a put-down and a mark of French cultural superiority. The French, by contrast, are mature and sophisticated, never shocked and titillated by the rich complexity of life's temptations.

France is a Catholic society devoid of the puritanical guilt that is deeply embedded in the Anglo-American psyche. The French draw a line between private and public vice, whereas in America and Britain, the distinction is blurred if not merged entirely.

In France, a politician can betray his wife without being suspected of screwing voters.

Moreover, French journalists are not driven by the same "fourth estate" ethos that animates American media culture. French society in general has an ambiguous relationship with the truth, and French journalists are frequently indifferent to the exposure of hard facts.

When the subject is the sexual indiscretion of politicians in high office, media indifference can be counted on because press and political circles in Paris are often intimated linked -- professionally, socially and sexually.

Hence the famous media "omerta" about the private lives of French politicians. This convenient arrangement reached a high point of hypocritical disregard for the truth during the presidency of Francois Mitterrand, when the French media kept the secret of his double life -- including an illegitimate daughter living in an official residence at taxpayers' expense -- for nearly two decades. Everyone knew about it, nobody wrote about it.

Opinion: How Petraeus changed the U.S. military

The shocking conduct of Dominique Strauss-Kahn shattered this longstanding media omerta. But French journalists are still reluctant to probe too aggressively into the private lives of politicians. They have good reason.

In France, there are strict laws that make privacy invasion illegal and punishable. Only last month, Strauss-Kahn, though disgraced and banished from French politics, sued a magazine for publishing a photo of him and his new girlfriend. And he won damages in court.

As the eye-popping details of Petraeus' complex personal life emerge in the American media, don't expect the French to respond with disbelief. They will claim they don't really want to know. No wonder. When it happens in France, they are often never told.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Fraser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT