Do French women embrace cheaters?
July 12th, 2011
11:24 AM ET

Do French women embrace cheaters?

By David Case, GlobalPost

Amid the multitude of conflicting “facts” in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, there's one key detail that everyone agrees on: a sexual act occurred between the French politician and the Sofitel maid on May 14. Strauss-Kahn says it was consensual. The maid alleges that he sexually assaulted her. But no one denies it happened.

That fact has shined a spotlight on Strauss-Kahn’s wife, and in general, on the peculiar status of dalliances in French marriages.

Despite Strauss-Kahn's admitted infidelity, his wife, Anne Sinclair, has devotedly supported him. While he was in Rikers Island prison, she issued a statement contending he was innocent. She’s treated him more like a princely victim than a cheater. When he needed an apartment to which he would be confined on house arrest, she chose one of Manhattan’s priciest rentals, a lavish Tribeca townhouse. When he appears in court, she stands by his side, softening his image for the world’s cameras. Most recently, after the conditions of his released were eased, the couple has been photographed on the streets of New York; on one occasion, his arm gently presses against her back, chivalrously guiding her into a black Mercedes.

Read: DSK case touches off national conversation about harassment

It’s a spectacle familiar to Americans: a show of marital loyalty despite a powerful husband’s public betrayal — in this case, with a maid (a maid!) during a layover to see his daughter. Whatever the details, the image of an unfaithful spouse being treated humanely by the jilted wife piques the curiosity of anyone who’s taken marriage vows. Whether it’s Hillary and Bill Clinton, Silda Wall-Spitzer and Eliot Spitzer or any number of other famously challenged couples, the public wonders about how they treat one another behind closed doors — even if it’s really none of our business.

In France, affairs have long been something that you engage in rather than read about in the media. So this very public infidelity remains jolting — even more so considering Sinclair’s status as a successful and powerful woman in her own right.

Sinclair was one of France’s most popular television journalists before stepping aside to avoid professional conflicts of interest with Strauss-Kahn’s political career. She’s an heir to a spectacular fortune amassed by art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who represented Pablo Picasso. She’s also divorced. And she has long known of Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a womanizer. In other words, she’s not the type who needs to, or feels compelled to, hold on to the coattails of her spouse.

Read: DSK: The economic impact

So, given the humiliation, why does she stand by her man? If exclusivity is the glue of relationships, why does any woman accept a cheating spouse? That’s a question that now grips France. Nearly two months after the allegations surfaced, the country is engaging in an unusual level of introspection about the state of French marriages and relationships.

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In part, the answer is cultural. There’s truth to the conventional wisdom that the French are relatively understanding of philandering spouses. France has long acknowledged an institution known as a “cinq a sept,” or a “five to seven,” a quickie afternoon tryst with a paramour between work and home.

Statistics confirm this. A 2008 study cited by Le Monde found that a minority of French men and women — only 40 percent — regard infidelity as “never justified.” In contrast, in a 2011 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans responded that it was “morally wrong for married men or women to have an affair.”

Le Monde took up the topic over the weekend. In an article titled “Women’s complacency about cheating husbands,” France’s highbrow, center-left paper asked psychologists to explain what drives French wives to accept unfaithfulness. The motives are as surprising as they are diverse.

Some women accept a cheater “because the qualities they appreciate in him surpass fidelity,” clinical psychologist Maryse Vaillant told the paper. “These are strong women, not victims…. [They are] capable of distinguishing what’s essential from what is secondary. They know their husbands need conquests to feel confident in themselves, and they accept it,” she said.

Read: French politicians are “nauseated” by Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandal

This way of thinking derives from a “maternal attitude” under which certain women “take pleasure in their husbands behaving like little boys who chase skirts and then return, rather than like men who feel responsible for the security and well-being of their families,” added Bernard Voizot, a member of the Societe psychanalytique de paris (Paris Psychoanalytic Society). “A Woman who doesn’t forbid her husband from having sex with others can also get an illusion of omnipotence. In authorizing it, she places herself in a position superior to him.”

This latter reason appears to play a role in Sinclair’s case. In 2006 when L’Express magazine asked if she suffered from her husband’s reputation as a seducer, she responded that she was “proud” of it. “It’s important for a politician to seduce,” she said. “As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, that’s enough for me."

Competition can also play a role. Some women “need the rivalry of another woman to love a man. They want to feel triumphant over a rival, just as young girls fantasize about eliminating their mothers to have their fathers to themselves,” child psychologist Samuel Lepastier told Le Monde. He added that this sentiment also motivates women who have affairs with their friends’ husbands, or with other married men. “Often the day the man divorces, they lose all interest in him,” he said, having achieved their conquest.

Sociologist Charlotte Le Van, an author of four books on infidelity, offered Le Monde more conventional reasons for women accepting infidelity: an inability to face a breakup, especially because of children; or because the wives have low self-esteem. “These women tend to think that if the husband looks elsewhere, it’s because he doesn’t get what he needs at home. They complain, for example, about having gained weight after the birth of children, or about not feeling desirable, or about being a mother first and a wife second.”

She adds that such submission generally ends “upon the intrusion of the extra-conjugal in the family’s intimacy” — for example, upon discovering the mistress’s panties under the covers, or upon introducing her to the children. Others accept the dalliances because they feel that men’s sexual needs are stronger than their own, and they would prefer not to have sex too often, Le Van told the paper.

French attitudes are changing, however. In a sidebar, the paper noted that thirty years ago, only 26 percent of people surveyed found infidelity to be “never justified.” Moreover, of French citizens between 18 and 29 years old, only 61 percent said that faithfulness was important to the success of a marriage. In 2008, that number had increased to 90 percent.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of David Case. Read more at the international news site GlobalPost.

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Topics: Culture • Europe • Sex

soundoff (81 Responses)
  1. Florian

    Ok now.. Some of these comments are ridiculous... (I'm French my English is not perfert but I'll try to make sense)
    Let me clarify something:you cannot judge another country's culture just by looking though your own culture lenses. From a French point of view and I'm sure many will agree, US society is full of paradoxes! You can drive at 16 but you can buy alcohool only at 21, you can own a gun more easily than in any country in the world. Politicians are all about morality, religious beliefs and such, yet some are caught up playing with other guys, some cheat their wives...
    What I mean is that in France religion is separated clearly from the state, morality is not a huge issue, French people tend to let people do what they want in a private setting of course.. I don't mean by that that we are immorals.. I mean that what is private is private! Nobody cares that DSK cheated his wife, nobody cares that the mayor of Paris is gay, nobody cares that Sarkozy is divorced! I juste doesn't matter! Politics and private life are separated!
    In my opinion the fact that moral judgement is less important in France allows some behaviors, and in my opinion it is better! Most people don't like when their lover is cheating on them, but depending on people that is not such a big deal and you can forgive that.
    To summarize: please US people be tolerant! Your culture is not the only culture in the world! From a French perspective US newspapers calling DSK "PERVERT!" on the first day, at a moment when nobody knows everything, is extremely shoking! In France newspaper are forbidden to have a judgement on somebody, it is up to justice to decide.
    There are many many differences between US and French culture. None is better than the other, they are just different! If US people were a little more tolerant towards others they would'nt be called "imperialists or would'nt be despised by some countries. For example when Chirac refused to go to war in Irak, no French people understood why French cheese was boycotted, why French fries were called liberty fries. Having a different opinion, a different culture is not a problem! It is what makes the world richer!
    Please be tolerant US people! 🙂

    July 14, 2011 at 5:37 am | Reply
    • US Citizen

      Florian, enough with the stereotype nonsense. Every society sees others through the paradigm of their own culture, even the French. That fact is the US is among the most pluristic and tolerant of countries, despite the rhetoric of some talk radio whackos and a few of the posts in this string. Just because we as a society have different values regarding marriage from the French doesn't mean we are intolerant or lacking perspective. Get a grip Florian, your own stereotypes are showing.

      July 14, 2011 at 8:17 am | Reply
      • Florian

        I was only explaining what is shoking or not for a non US citizen 😀
        It is not stereotype nor nonsence!
        All that I mentionned was in response to other comments that clearly illustrate my point! You may be different, and I'm not generalizing of course, but the points I mentionned are historical truths (War in Irak, DSK affairs, ...).
        I am expressing an opinion from outside the US about what your culture, your country, shows to the rest of the world, and in these cases it is not fabulous...
        I'm saying that the US seem to be rather self-centered, full of moral judgement, full of paradoxes. This is not a stereotype, this is the image conveyed when we see US movies, US series, US newspapers. I'm not saying that it is entirely true.
        So I'm not into stereotypes! 😀 sorry for not agreeing with you US citizen!

        July 15, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  2. jeff

    It is not so much that they (french women) are willing to forgive so readily, as it they are complicite in the crimes. What I mean by this is they care about things other that integrity and fidelity; their game is power and wealth. That is why they stand beside

    July 14, 2011 at 6:07 am | Reply
    • Florian

      What a ridiculous comment once again! French women interested in wealth and power? What about all of your actresses, singers, known for nothing women (Paris Hilton? haha) ? These are women only interested in fame wealth and power! Anne Sinclair may be interested in wealth and power, that is not the point, but your comment only shows what I said earlier, you are generalizing, taking one example and making it a rule, attacking a culture because it is different from yours! Kinda pathetic when put that way don't you think?

      July 14, 2011 at 7:34 am | Reply
    • fran

      you nailed it. it's all about status. women here suffer their husbands' infidelities to keep their status.

      July 11, 2016 at 12:36 pm | Reply
  3. victor

    Great generalisation CNN.

    July 14, 2011 at 6:45 am | Reply
  4. Women's Infidelity

    Why does the popular press always emphasize/report on male infidelity? Women cheat on their husbands at the same rates as men cheat on their wives. Yet the women are always complaining about cheating husbands. Women are just as immoral and unethical as men. There is clearly a double standard.

    July 14, 2011 at 8:49 am | Reply
  5. Sarah

    This article is not only xenophobic, it is also misogynous. I have yet to meet a French woman ( or man ) ready to "accept infidelity" of her/his huband/wife or partner. Anne Sinclair is a ridiculous woman who doesn't represent any group of women. May be the American should be more tolerant towards the other cultures and countries ?

    July 14, 2011 at 11:14 am | Reply
  6. Roelof

    Here in Holland woman think a little bit different than the French. I certainly don't know any ex of mine who would have liked that. So French woman don't mind cheating on them.. hmm.. what about in front of their nose? Bambambam..

    July 14, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  7. Whoever

    I don´t think it has nothing to do with geography... Isn´t it pretty much like with the Clintons?

    July 14, 2011 at 8:13 pm | Reply
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