Skip to main content

French shrug at Petraeus' adultery

By Matthew Fraser, Special to CNN
November 13, 2012 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
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
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT