Fidelity à la Française

I first went to Paris when I was 14 years old. I was travelling with my father who introduced me to a “friend” of his, a dancer at the Lido called Sophie. Something she told me has remained with me ever since. “All you need to be a French woman,” she said, “is two lipsticks and a lover.”
Having lived there for several years I would say the truth is closer to one lipstick and two lovers.
The French are famous for sex. Now we have it from an official source that they excel at it. And, rather predictably, they’re much better at it than us. An Ifop (Institut Français d’opinion publique) survey published this week entitled ‘Paris, City of Light, City of Debauchery’ concludes that Parisians have on average 19 lovers, whereas we Brits have a measly nine. It also found that 44 per cent of Parisians have slept with someone whose name they don’t know, 29 per cent have taken part in threesomes (or ménage à trois as they are known in France) and 22 per cent have been involved in an orgy.
In 2014 Ifop carried out a survey that found that 55 per cent of French men and 32 per cent of French women cheat on their spouses. I would guess the real figure is even higher. Do the French have time for anything else but sex? No wonder their economy is in such a state. And the fact that they’re always on strike, is that just a ploy to spend more time in the sack?
We Brits have always been slightly jealous of the French je ne sais quoi. If your husband announces he has a French mistress, you know the game’s up. Similarly when women dream of a tall, dark and handsome man, he probably has just a hint of a French accent.
But are their sex lives really fuelled by romance? Is it all candlelit dinners and longing gazes under the Eiffel Tower? Holding hands as you stroll along the banks of the Seine and drinking champagne under the shade of a Plane tree?
I would argue that no, it’s not. OK so they have more lovers, but that doesn’t make them more loving. The truth is that French sex is more about promiscuity than romance. If you are serially unfaithful your tally will increase, won’t it?images-1
While we Brits get married and settle down, the French get married and, er, carry on as if they’re not. A few years ago while discussing the difference between vous and tu with a married French couple, the man told me he always vous his mistress. “It’s much sexier,” he said. His wife didn’t blink. I half expected her to chip in with a ‘oh yes I always vous my lovers too, makes it seem so much more exotic, not to mention erotic.’
A friend of mine called Bernadette is 37 years old and has been having an affair with the husband of a friend of hers for a year and a half. “We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in town. We had coffee and he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress,” she says. “I was surprised at how direct he was, it was almost like a business proposal, he suggested we meet once or twice a week, he would book a hotel, and we would have sex.” They do just that; she goes to the hotel after leaving work and before she gets home to her husband and two small children. She is not in it for the romance, but views it more like a treat. “Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room where there is a man waiting for me.”
Jean-Claude is in his mid-forties. He’s a successful Paris-based businessman who has been married to Chantal for 15 years. They have three children. He freely admits that there is not one year out of the 15 when he has been faithful to her. He doesn’t have one regular mistress, like a lot of French men do, but a series of lovers, none of whom he sees more than a handful of times because he doesn’t want to risk getting too attached to them. His motivation is purely sexual. He finds sex with his wife boring, and he enjoys the chase and thrill of seducing other women. But he has no desire to break up his family, hence the need to keep the affairs brief and to the point. But is there really any point?
“It never even occurred to me to remain faithful,” he says. “It’s just our way of life. Added to which among my friends a mistress is a bit of a status symbol, you’re seen as a bit of a loser if you don’t have one.”
The fact that infidelity is culturally acceptable makes it so much more acceptable than it is here. Another friend of mine called Gilbert says that one of his most enduring memories from childhood is of his grandmother consoling his grandfather when one of his girlfriends had finished with him. There is no stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair, in fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of. No one would dream of asking you where you were between cinq and sept. In England, if you are an unfaithful person, you are also a bad person. Not so in France. For example, you can be a philanderer and still be a good President as we have seen with a succession of French heads of state. As far back as 1899 a French President called Félix Faure died during an oral sex session at the Elysée Palace. What a way to go. Makes Clinton seem like a lightweight. Before they had presidents, French kings were at it. Madame de Pompadour was Louis XV’s official mistress, and that title must mean he had several unofficial ones as well.
There are even those who argue that infidelity in France is a basic human right. As Michael Worton former (now retired) Professor of French Literature at University College London sums up: “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
The Paris-based American author Edith Kunz put it like this: “Wives, husbands, mistresses and lovers function together on a relatively peaceful basis in France when the players adhere to the non-verbal code of manners.”
Infidelity is a French specialist subject. But maybe because it is so entrenched it’s in danger of becoming as much of a burden as marriages sometimes appear to be? Jean-Claude admits there are times when he tires of the affairs. “Maybe I’m just getting old,” he laughs. “But there are days when I wonder if I can be bothered. And then I think about a certain pair of lips or the way someone laughs and I’m off again.”
Antoine, 36, who lives in Lyon, has been married for five years but has been having an affair with an older divorced woman for almost two years. They meet at her place two or three times a week. “I think it is nearing the end of its natural life,” he says of the affair. “There comes a time when it starts to turn into the same mundanity you have at home, and then you have to move on.” Antoine says he will probably always have a mistress on and off. “I can’t imagine being with the same woman forever. Never kissing another woman, or caressing another body. It would feel like a prison sentence. I think being sexually liberated is essential for your well-being.”
And the women? Well here again is a crucial difference between the French and us Brits. “French women are born to seduce,” a male French friend once told me. “And what are English women born to do?” I asked. He thought for a moment. “Cuddle their dogs.”
But does all this sex and seduction actually get them anywhere? Are they any happier than us semi-frigid Brits cuddling our dogs and counting our sexual conquests on one hand?
While it all seems terribly exciting running around chasing women or being seduced by men who one would assume after so much practice must be getting rather good at it, most French people concede that actually having your cake and eating it is just not possible. The statistic from the survey that 44 per cent of people have slept with someone whose name they don’t know is just plain depressing. For sex to be truly exciting and interesting surely there has to be an element of romance? There may be times when a nameless encounter is just the ticket, but I’m not sure it’s a sustainable path to fulfilment and happiness.
None of the case studies I spoke to seemed overly excited by their affairs. Funnily enough, if anything the women were happier than the men. With the men I got the impression they almost felt obliged to be unfaithful, as if it was somehow a reflection on their manhood (or lack of it) if they only slept with their wives. As Jean-Claude says: “I sometimes wonder if I’m doing this for me or if it’s only because it’s expected of me.” Another friend of mine who lives in Provence travels to Paris once a month to get his hair cut. Obviously being French he is not getting his hair cut at all, but seeing his mistress. But he admits that he sometimes enjoys the journey more than the actual mistress. “It’s so relaxing,” he says. “I think I’d still go even if it weren’t for her.”
The French might have more notches on the bedpost, but as with so many things, happiness through lovers is more about quality than quantity.
So while the French may have won the battle, we are winning the war. Plus ça change.

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