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Perhaps it’s that I just moved to France, where adultery seems to be the national pastime, but the subject of infidelity has been on my mind lately. Here, people still wonder why Monica Lewinsky was a big deal — after all, the current president’s wife, whom he met when he officiated at her first wedding, spent most of 2005 living in New York with her lover. Infidelity is a touchier subject in Anglophone culture, paradoxically both less publicly accepted and more subject to neurotic analysis. Ergo, where the French have the civilized cinq à sept, we have binge drinking and two varieties of football.

Why the apparent difference between the two cultures? The facile answer is to resort to macho-Latin clichés, but it’s not like infidelity isn’t also prevalent in Anglo-American culture. Proponents of that branch of voodoo science known as "evolutionary psychology" will quote you articles on "sperm competition" and that surprising numbers of kids aren’t related to their supposed fathers. This isn’t really the place to go into the game-theory explanations of non-monogamy (or why so many

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evolutionary psychologists seem to be swingers trying to use research money to justify their predilections), but it does go to show that sleeping with people other than your ostensible mate is a cross-cultural phenomenon.

So perhaps we should ask about the origins of our attitudes to non-monogamy. What’s the historical basis between the different way that les Anglo-Saxos and les français view extra-marital, extra-curricular activities?

The king had his official mistress, and everyone else followed suit.

The most apparent difference is the influence of the Catholic Church. France didn’t allow divorce, this theory goes, so people who couldn’t stand each other any more made a tacit agreement to go their own ways while sharing the same house. The idea is appealing in its simplicity, but it’s only half right: the Church’s regulations on marriage, divorce, and the disposition of property were certainly influential, but they were more of an effect than a cause. Marriage in aristocratic circles was always for reasons of property and family alliance. Just so long as the business of producing an heir was taken care of, it didn’t matter what you did in your spare time.

What aristocrats did in their spare time was play the game of courtly love. The king had his official mistress, and everyone else followed suit. Fidelity was bourgeois, something for change-counters and the nouveau riche who had just bought their titles; in contrast, being a good romancer was a sign of belonging to the old-boys’ club. Though coveting other men’s wives may have been a sin, by the late eighteenth century, any aristocrat worth his salt maintained a stable of opera singers, prostitutes and ballet dancers. (And if a few wives happened to be thrown into the mix, well, that could be forgiven, too.)

The Revolutions of 1789 and 1830 displaced the old aristocracy of birth with a slightly more open aristocracy of money. However, rather than inventing a new style, the new millionaire elite aped the old. Thus, the chefs de cuisine formerly working in noble châteaux found themselves cooking dinners that cost a worker’s yearly wages in the kitchens of elite restaurants, the fencing masters that had trained young men to spill each others’ blue blood now prepared radical journalists to duel over newspaper editorials — and the piece on the side likewise became democratized.

With the revolutions of 1848 and 1871, the tacit acceptance of the extramarital affair climbed further down the social ladder. As it had for the aristocrats of old, taking a lover was more than a sign of social capital — it demonstrated that you had the good taste to ignore conventional morality. In France, republicanism meant libertinism for all.

Even the style you cheated in said something about you: A petit bourgeois might lecherously grope every pretty young thing to come into his store, but a man of affairs would discreetly keep a ballet dancer or actress in her own apartment.

     

  

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The structure of French society actually enables this: Even a city like Paris is a series of small villages. You know your neighbors, your local shop owners and the regulars at the café on the corner. Gossip spreads like Metro disruptions during a grève. The way to keep social harmony is to watch your mouth: Even if everyone knows M. Tringler and Mme. Pouffiasse are fucking, they keep their mouths shut (at least when M. Pouffiasse and Mme. Tringler are around).

In the States, on the other hand, we have quite a different culture. As Max Weber wrote more than a century ago in his essay "Churches and Sects in North America," we’re the inheritors (or victims) of the Protestant ethic. The U.S. is an alienated frontier of vast distances populated by dislocated immigrants. The only proof you had that someone wouldn’t rip you off was that they had been vetted by the congregation of a church and admitted into the fold — which means it fell to your neighbors to police your behavior.

In other words, in order for people to trust you and accord you any sort of status as a member of the community, you had to follow the Ten Commandments, or at least appear to follow them. Social capital depends on belonging to a church, which in turn depends on acting like a mensch. "As far as I am concerned, everyone can believe what he likes, but if I discover

To the French, cheating is not so much accepted as regarded.

that a client doesn’t go to church, then I wouldn’t trust him to pay me fifty cents," a traveling salesman said to Weber as he was traveling through Oklahoma. (If you want to read more on Weber’s ideas about Protestantism and American national character, check out this two-part essay.)

Thus, the different reception between the dangerous liaisons chez Sarkozy and Lewinskygate. Attacking Bill Clinton on the grounds he was an adulterer was actually a brilliant strategy, since an American politician’s public performance of virtue is what makes him trustworthy as a leader. When Clinton was proven to be a sinner like the rest of us, he was open to attack. The French, on the other hand, have a more realistic view of things. They expect their politicians to have affairs — not only as a proof of virility and status, but it also shows that they have the necessary guile to succeed in politics. After all, you just can’t trust a man who’s faithful to his wife.

In the end, Brits and Americans probably stray just as much as the French. The difference is that to our minds, extracurricular sex is something morally shameful, to be hidden away. If it happens, it’s grounds for ending a relationship. To the French, it’s not so much accepted as regarded, much like men over forty wearing Speedos at the beach, as an inevitable part of life and nothing to make too big a fuss over. We might even (if the popularity of clubs échangistes in Paris is any indication) regard it as on the level of a national fetish — and, all things considered, I’ll take the French national fetish over the German any day.  

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©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.