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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT