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 12:50 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT