The arraignment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges including attempted rape and sexual abuse of a hotel housekeeper has stunned France. Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist who was forced to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, was about to announce his intention to run for president in 2012. His reputation as a womanizer did not seem to hurt his chances; he was ahead of President Nicolas Sarkozy in the polls.
That changed when Strauss-Kahn, a man who had been known as a grand séducteur, suddenly was accused of being a violent criminal. Certainly, the Strauss-Kahn scandal has nothing to do with seduction à la française. But it has focused attention on the age-old habits of French politicians -- male politicians, that is -- to use seduction as a campaign tool. I explore that issue in detail in my current book La Seduction, from which the following is adapted.
In the United States, sexual desire is considered a distraction from the hard work of governing. Politicians are supposed to be pure, or at least strive to be. Americans have proved time and again that they see a politician's cheating in marriage as tantamount to cheating on the voters and the country. Even the most innocently playful banter can have negative consequences. [As we've seen in recent days, the salacious online sexual liaisons of Representative Anthony D. Weiner of New York and his subsequent lies about them have prompted several prominent Democrats to call for his resignation.]
In France, the ability to seduce a lover and engage on the playing field of sexual pleasure, in or out of marriage, is regarded by both men and women as a basic male competency, and no male politician dares risk being seen as inadequate. An aura of virility and sexual potency is not merely a plus. It's a necessity. A political man who reveals his sexual prowess is proving his good health and vigor: he is showing his constituents that he is fully and physically capable of running the country.
When asked in 1992 by the popular magazine Actuel whether they had ever cheated on their wives, most politicians showed little hesitation to answer in the affirmative. "I will not lie to you," one senator replied. "In Marseille, everything is known. I do not drink. I do not smoke. I never gamble. But I have one passion, and I repeat one passion: I love women. I have been a very, very, very great womanizer."
"To come to power, you have to seduce, and to stay there, you have to prove yourself vigoureux," wrote Jacques Georgel in his book, Sexe et politique. Politicians are not hounded out of office for sexual indiscretions, and the public is oft en happy to let their secrets remain officially under wraps. But seduction flows as an undercurrent in public and private life, so it is natural that talking about politicians' personal lives is part of the national discourse.
French politicians are allowed to enjoy their enhanced opportunities, unlike Americans, who are forced to take up the mantle of purity just when assuming high office might give them an advantage in the sexual game, This reality flows from centuries of precedent. The kings took sexual seduction to new heights. There was a hierarchy to the women in their lives: wives, significant others (known as "favorites"), and women passing through the court who provided fleeting adventures. To make sure that no one forgets France's royal history today, the kings' escapades are routinely retold in cover stories in mainstream weekly news magazines.
The tradition of seduction carried forward into modern times. Edgar Faure, a politician who wrote crime novels under a pseudonym and was a member of the Académie Française, liked to say that he had all the time in the world to succeed in his operations of seduction.