The secret life of a real French mistress
François Hollande’s love life has highlighted French attitudes to extra-marital affairs. But what is it really like to be the ‘other’ women in France?
In my next life, I want to be a French mistress. I know quite a few of them. They don’t have the same sad-seeming existence as “the other woman” in any other country. French mistresses are adored, revered and spoilt. As far as I can tell, their love lives involve sexy underwear, drinking champagne and great sex with men who never stay long enough to start snoring or ask them whose turn it is to take the rubbish out.
French mistresses are not seen as marriage-breakers or bitches. They have their place in society, just like everyone else, and they live by certain rules. No one in France seems to be blaming President François Hollande’s mistress for the current scandal — as I suspect they might if this were the UK. My friends in France are more upset by the manner in which Hollande conducted the affair: the helmet, the motorbike. Not chic at all.
We’ve had a home in France for a dozen years. It didn’t take me long to realise that I was very different from the women around me. I was fatter, frumpier and more faithful. This discovery led me to write three books about my new homeland, two of them focused on French women, a topic I find endlessly fascinating.
In France, laicism (secularism) rules. And that separation doesn’t just apply to the Church and the State, but to sex and marriage — and sex and careers, political or otherwise.
There is very little stigma or even surprise attached to having an affair. In fact it’s often seen as something to be proud of — in some ways a basic human right, which of course (this being France) applies to both men and women. “The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche,” says Michael Worton, former professor of French Literature at University College London. “Marrying and then misbehaving is seen as being free.”
Another Parisian friend of mine blames French literature: “Our culture of l’amour libertin is a heritage we cannot avoid. We have grown up with books like Les Liaisons dangereuses and characters like the Marquis de Sade and Colette. They are part of our education.”
Bernadette, 36, married with two children, lives in Lyon where she works for a pharmaceutical company
I have been having an affair for almost a year now. It is with the husband of a friend of mine from university. We knew each other, of course, and then one day we bumped into each other in the main square in town. We had coffee. I remember it was one of those beautiful crisp cold days where they have the heaters on outside at the cafés and they give you fleeces to keep you warm. He made a point of getting up and wrapping the fleece over my legs, which I found incredibly intimate for some reason. Then he asked me if I was interested in becoming his mistress.
At first I flattered myself that he has always had a thing about me, but of course it transpired that his last mistress had chucked him. He had always liked me, we had always had quite a flirtatious relationship, but it wasn’t like he sought me out. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
Anyway, 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. Neither of us would mention our spouses or our families, it would be almost as if we were strangers. I laughed and called him a romantic. He said I would get to know his romantic side in time. And that we might have a glass of champagne or two.
I think I was attracted by the adventure of it to begin with, the illicit nature of the arrangement. I had never had an affair before, I am happily married, but the excitement has gone out of our relationship. I always think it’s such a shame, but it inevitably happens; ask anyone who’s been married for ten years. I don’t know any woman who says her husband still makes her go weak at the knees or gives her butterflies. And if we’re honest we all really miss that feeling.
Of course I don’t love my lover like I love my husband. But we’re more like best friends than lovers. We have a very stable marriage, a great friendship, we are happy together and I don’t ever see us getting divorced. In fact I wonder if that’s why so many people in France have affairs. We are slightly conditioned into staying together, retaining the status quo. In France people rarely move from the area they grew up in, they have the same friends throughout their lives and getting divorced would just cause too much turbulence.
I don’t think my husband has been unfaithful to me; his priorities are somehow elsewhere. I think he’d rather read a good book. Would I be upset if he had a mistress? If it was just purely for sex, then no, I don’t think I would. I’m not a sexually jealous person. But it would upset me if he came home and told me he had found someone he loved more than me and he wanted to be with forever. He doesn’t know about my lover and I do sometimes wonder how he would react. He’s not a dramatic type so there would be no screaming and shouting, but of course I hate to think of him as upset.
I don’t think it will come to that though; we are very careful. We only communicate via text and I have my lover listed under a female colleague’s name. I go straight from work to meet him, more often than not on a day when the children have after-school activities. My husband works late most evenings anyway so I am always back home before him.
I know it sounds silly but I feel like I deserve a treat. And that’s exactly what it’s become, my little treat. Every week, sometimes twice a week, I meet my lover. He always brings me some kind of present, even if it’s just a box of chocolates or some sexy underwear, which I pretend I have bought if it’s ever spotted. Some women go to the spa or the hairdresser’s to unwind, I go to a small hotel room with a rather garish fake Louis XIV bed where there is a man waiting for me. I don’t think it will go on forever, it’s just a phase, but it’s useful for me right now because it adds a dimension to my life that I need at this moment. Maybe it’s because I’m the wrong side of 35.
But one day it will end and I won’t cry about it. I may not even have another lover. I just hope it ends amicably and it’s something we can both remember in our old age and think back on and smile about. I don’t see anything immoral about it; it’s good for me and what’s good for me is also good for my family.
Alexandra, 46, divorced, two children, from Paris, is a civil servant
I have been divorced for six years now and been a mistress for four. My lover is married with four teenage children. I think deep down his wife knows he has a mistress, but I don’t think she cares really. She knows I’m not trying to steal her husband away from her. I don’t infringe on their lives and, more importantly, they don’t infringe on mine. I have two children, a boy in his late teens and a girl in her early twenties. They know he is part of my life but as I said it’s not a life I share with them. My home life with them is just that. He and I exist independently of everyone else in our lives, which is how I like it.
He is not my first lover. When I was married I had affairs mainly with younger men, but I think now that was probably a cry for help as I was unhappy in my marriage. I got to know my present lover when his business was lobbying for a change in some regulations; he is the CEO of a successful telecoms company. We meet in beautiful hotels or at my home when my children are away, or we travel to places together. Of course for me there is no secrecy so the logistics are fairly easy. Paris is a big enough place to be anonymous. I guess because we don’t share a home or all the dull things that go with running a home it always feels new and exciting.
It seems he really appreciates me and does his best to keep me interested and happy. For example he never forgets my birthday and will always comment on something I’m wearing. He also has great taste in lingerie; I have never been so well dressed beneath my suits. We have a lovely time together and then I come home and enjoy my own space, my own freedom, sleeping alone in my bed, deciding what I do and when I do it. Why do I need another man around full-time, leaving his laundry all over the place and demanding attention? I had that for 15 years. I like having a man when I want him, not foisted on me every minute of the day. For me, it’s an ideal situation. I see it lasting well into our old age. I am not interested in getting married again and he is not interested in getting divorced. We are made for each other.
Clarisse, 39 years old, married, three children, from Montpellier, works part-time as a receptionist in a dental practice
My lover is like my therapist. Or maybe it would be closer to the truth to say that without him I’d need a therapist. I have known him for just under a year and my life has improved immeasurably since we started our affair. I was in such a boring rut, with three relatively young children and a husband who spent more time looking at his iPhone than at me. Such a cliché I know, and I hate to be a walking cliché, which I guess is why I set out to change things. Well, I didn’t know I wanted to change things until I spotted my future lover. I am Catholic and I met him at church, which I suppose sounds hypocritical but that’s how it was.
My husband doesn’t give me what I need, whereas my lover is passionate and kind and notices me. He fulfills a need in me that wasn’t being met at home. Before I met him I really felt my life was just passing me by in a blur of chores, work and children. I kept thinking: “Is this it?” And I would get depressed and just stare into space for half an hour, which actually with three children I don’t have time to do.
My husband and I have a fine relationship. We still have sex (not much, but once a week or so), we have the children, we get on well. But it’s just so boring. Of course for us being Catholic there is no question of a divorce so anything that keeps you in a marriage is in my view permissible. In fact, even if it weren’t for the Catholic constraints we would still not really have enough reason to get divorced. It’s not like I hate him.
When I talk to my girlfriends I realise they are all more or less in the same boat. I sometimes wonder how many of them are having affairs. We don’t really tell each other everything; there’s a bit too much competition between us. I have only told one close friend about my lover; she’s my best friend so I tell her everything. Apart from the competitive issue with other friends I also don’t want to risk anything. My husband would be furious if he found out. He has always said he would leave me if I were unfaithful, I think in part because his mother had an affair and it was quite destructive for the family, although his parents are still together to this day.
We are so careful. We meet mainly in one hotel in a part of town we’re not likely to be spotted. Even if I am spotted going in I have an excuse ready. We do text each other but I delete his texts as soon as I have read them. Well, sometimes at work if it’s quiet I keep a text or two if it’s sexy or romantic and look at it a few times just to pep me up. Sometimes I feel like a teenage girl, which is a feeling I love. Maybe I’m immature; maybe I didn’t have enough fun as a teenager and that’s why I need to catch up now.
I am very careful about deleting everything on my mobile before I go home. Not that I think my husband would go through my phone but one of the children might pick it up and say: “Oh, who’s so and so and why does he want to see you naked?” I don’t want to get divorced. And I certainly don’t want him to get divorced either. I’m not in this to wreck his marriage, more to save mine. Things have to be really bad before you start splitting up, and they’re not. As I said, we bumble along just fine.
I’m under no illusion that things would get mundane pretty quickly if I lived with my lover. In fact things at home are better since I started my affair. Because of my lover I am nicer to everyone, so in my view everyone’s a winner. At least at the moment, because the balance between my lover and me is perfect. The danger is that one of us falls in love, but here’s hoping it doesn’t happen, that we can carry on taking our affair for what it is: a release from our everyday lives that helps us both cope with our everyday lives. We just need to keep a certain distance, which we do. For example, we still vous each other, which I find incredibly erotic, but I think you have to be French to understand that!
Aurelie, 24, single, from Paris, works as a legal secretary
I am having an affair with my boss. He is married with three children. It started with a drink after work. We flirted and chatted and then had another drink. We saw each other another couple of times before he ended up back at my flat where we had sex for the first time. He’s ten years older than I am and a great lover. I feel slightly stupid, and I haven’t told all my friends about him, because although we French are famous for our liaisons I think attitudes are changing and it’s not as accepted as it was. I think they would say I was being stupid or naive, getting involved with a married man.
It’s not that I feel guilty; I don’t know his wife, he never talks about her, and I’m not the one who is married, but I guess it won’t go anywhere, which is what my friends would tell me if I told them. In my mother’s generation that wouldn’t matter so much, I guess because divorce was so much less common so affairs were more usual. You could be a serial mistress or stick with one man for 30 years. My mother’s sister had a lover for most of her adult life. She never married and seemed perfectly happy with the situation. They even went on holiday together when his wife took the children to her parents.
But now we women want it all, and I’m no exception. I don’t want to be like my aunt, I want to get married and have a family. And I don’t want to have affairs when I get married, so I am getting it all out of my system now. I have time to settle down. But if a nice unmarried man came along I’d tell my boss it’s over for sure, and I don’t think he’d mind; men like him always find someone else.
Things have definitely changed from the last generation; I don’t know any of my friends who would accept a life as the other woman. We’ll see how long this affair lasts. It’s early days, only six months, and I’m having fun. It’s so exciting waiting for an e-mail to ping into my inbox asking me to meet him. I feel singled out and special. He spoils me, he’s older and sophisticated, and it makes the days at work go quicker thinking about him naked in my flat.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of The Ex-Factor and Love in a Warm Climate: A Novel About the French Art of Having Affairs (both published by Gibson Square books)
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019