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The French May Be Casual about Extramarital Sex, But They Aren't about Relationships

Edouard Manet's “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe” (1863). Public domain via Wikipedia

Global Voices recently asked our editors: What is the most misunderstood aspect of the place you live, or where you're from?

Their responses will be published as part of an ongoing series debunking myths and offering a more nuanced take on certain parts of the world. The first installment is by Lova Rakotomalala, Global Voices Francophone editor based in Paris, France.   

It's an enduring stereotype that just won't die: French people are quite libertine when it comes to their sex lives. And literature and popular culture don't help, rife as they are with French characters with a laissez-faire attitude towards sex. Cases in point: the Vicomte de Valmont, the Marquis de Sade, Brigitte Bardot, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. and even Pepe le Pew, for crying out loud.

This cliché is not completely without merit. French citizens, for instance, have tended to take a fairly relaxed attitude toward their political leaders’ extra-marital affairs. Felix Faure, president of France from 1895-99, died of apoplexy at the Elysée Palace during a sexual interlude with his mistress between work appointments. Both the wife and mistress of president François Mitterrand were famously present at his funeral, along with their children. More recently, there's sitting President François Hollande's notorious affair with actress Julie Gayet.

A survey by the Pew Research Center has suggested that French voters may be more lenient towards infidelity than elsewhere: just 47% of those polled said it is morally unacceptable for married people to have an affair. This attitude is even acknowledged—at least informally—by the country's public institutions. A French expatriate friend of mine who was considering moving to Madagascar on a one-year engineering contract, was sent a memo by the French Consulate in Madagascar, warning him that the country was deemed a high risk for expatriates. Having heard the country was rather peaceful, he asked for an explanation. The answer he received from the Consulate went as follows: “You are a young married couple. Your wife might not join you right away for a period of time. Moving to Madagascar alone might be detrimental to your family life.” I am still not sure whether that statement was more of an indictment of the mores of the French, or those of Madagascar!

Yet there's also evidence that contradicts the idea that French people let their libidos run wild. While French cultural norms about marital infidelity might be less stringent than in other parts of the world, in 2015, a nationwide advertising campaign for an extramarital dating site called Gleeden received a massive pushback from the public and had to withdraw campaign material that had been posted in several cities.

French actress Brigitte Bardot was one of the best-known sex symbols of the 1950s and 1960s. PHOTO: Michel Bernanau (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia Commons.

On her blog French Yummy Mummy, Muriel Demarcus, a French expatriate living in London, unpacks the problems with the stereotype. She explains:

In London, they make it sound like the French have invented extramarital affairs. All the articles usually paint an idyllic picture of open marriages and glorify women who swallow their pride while their husbands have a roving eye. Apparently, being unfaithful is not that big a deal in France.

What a load of rubbish! Come on, the aristocracy in this country has had affairs for ages (just look at the Royal Family!), and it doesn’t have much to do with the French, does it? They did it all by themselves. Affairs are not the privilege of the French.

Admiring the French for their perceived promiscuity is an easy way to forget their own frustrations.

What would we do without stereotypes? I once was offered an ashtray despite the fact that I don’t smoke. As I am French, people assume I smoke. Well, I don’t.

Data from the aforementioned dating website Gleeden also contradicted the notion that the French are exceptionally adulterous:

Gleeden’s own figures suggest that the French are no more likely to stray than other nationalities. Its own research found that 17 percent of the French admitted to having an affair, the same as in Spain and Italy.

In fact, if we were to dig deeper into the French outlook on love, we would observe that they try to build and maintain relationships that transcend simplistic, black-and-white notions of monogamy. For the French, the emphasis is often on the relationship as a whole, and not solely on its physical manifestations.

Understanding—or forgiveness—is key, it seems. In Modern Romance, his new book on romance in the digital age, the American comic Aziz Ansari cites a study by the French Institute of Public Opinion and concludes that:

It wasn't that French people didn't care if their spouses cheat, but that they weren't as shattered by the betrayal. Because of their cultural attitude, the French are also the most likely to forgive a cheater.

The same study found that 68% of French believe it is possible to remain faithful to one person for life, and that 63% believe they could continue to love someone even if that person has cheated on them.

French psychologist Maryse Vaillant has an explanation for these figures:

My research showed that giving in to temptation can help a man understand the extent to which he is attached to his wife. With his wife he has projects of bringing up children, buying a house, creating a life. With an attraction to another young woman it's not the same thing. Sometimes we need a little emotional crisis to show the difference between a moment's satisfaction and building an existence together.

“Even if the French are more willing to accept that infidelity is part of the human experience, you do it secretly,” writes Debra Ollivier, author of What French Women Know: About Love, Sex, and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind.

“It’s a private thing you do. Marriage and the sanctity of the family are still really important. If you’re going to have a lover, it’s probably because you want to keep your family intact. You’ll have a lover and be satisfied and keep the family unit together. It’s ironic, because we talk about family values in the United States, but we don’t do anything to underwrite it. We have no social infrastructure, whereas there they do. The family structure is important. It doesn’t easily fall apart, and when it does, it’s really traumatic.”

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