The French are famous for their supposedly relaxed attitudes toward sex, in contrast to our supposedly puritanical ones. And no one is fonder of this cliché than the French themselves, as was apparent in their reactions to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Uptight Americans were guilty of "criminalizing desire," wrote a prominent journalist, whose colleagues joined him in self-congratulatory superiority. Nothing similar could ever have happened in France, thanks to the country's mature appreciation of sex, love, and human fallibility. Hadn't François Mitterrand, in the grand tradition of King Louis XIV, maintained a mistress and second family throughout his term as president with little damage to his reputation when the story finally broke?
Like most clichés, this one has a grain of truth but is also far too simple. The French today are indeed relatively tolerant of their leaders' sexual foibles, but they can be just as pruriently interested in the subject as anyone: Thrice-married Nicolas Sarkozy's complicated love life is fodder their media thrive on. Besides, it is always a mistake to attribute timeless characteristics to an entire nation, in matters of the heart as in anything else.
France may be known for its sexual freedom, but it has had its own episodes of sexual puritanism as well—and the two, in fact, have often intertwined in unexpected ways. During the French Revolution, it was the radical Jacobins who praised the virtues of family life and condemned the alleged perversions of the aristocracy with a severity that would do extreme present-day American "social conservatives" proud. (That is not the only thing these two groups of zealots have in common.) And if you look more closely at that libidinous precursor of rakish modern French leaders, Louis XIV himself, the story of his love life is also about sexual retrenchment and religious revival in an era usually considered among the nation's most decadent.
Both sides of Louis' reign come out in the story of his mistress and then secret wife, Françoise d'Aubigné, known as Madame de Maintenon. As Veronica Buckley shows in her richly detailed biography, The Secret Wife of Louis XIV, Maintenon's early trajectory was anything but staid. She was born in 1635, most likely in the prison where her father, Constant d'Aubigné, a reprobate Protestant noble, was serving a sentence for treason. (Families in early-modern Europe sometimes accompanied men to prison.) After his release, the inaptly named Constant haplessly pursued one unrealistic get-rich scheme after another, including running a slave plantation in the Caribbean. His young daughter spent three years in the wild atmosphere of newly colonized Martinique, almost dying along the way. Back in France, at age 16, beautiful but impoverished—and converted, along with her family, to Catholicism—she married one of the century's great satirical writers, Paul Scarron, who was 25 years her senior. Severe arthritis had left him so crippled and deformed that the Queen Mother quipped of the young bride: "[S]he'll be the most useless piece of furniture in the house."
After Scarron's death in 1660, Françoise moved up into the highest circles of society—but not in the way familiar clichés about royal debauchery might suggest. She became the friend and confidante of the king's principal mistress, Madame de Montespan, and through her came to the attention of the king himself. Over many years at court, she gradually supplanted her friend, but she did so as much through her calm presence and advice as through her physical charms. At the same time, she grew more fervent in her religious devotion, aligning herself with the political faction known as the dévôts (the devout). When Queen Marie-Thérèse died in 1683, Françoise and Louis entered into a "morganatic" marriage (one that explicitly bars the wife from becoming queen), which the king insisted on keeping formally secret because of her relatively low birth. During the next 30 years, she imposed a steadily more restrained, even dour atmosphere on what had been one of the most famously colorful and libertine royal courts in European history. She founded a girl's school, Saint-Cyr, and survived her royal husband by four years, dying in 1719.
For a long time, when it came to Madame de Maintenon, historians tended to share the view of the 19th-century writer Emile Gaboriau: "Even during Louis XIV's lifetime, Versailles fell into decadence. With Madame de Maintenon, sadness entered the enchanted palace." It did not help that the two most brilliant chroniclers of the court, the duke of Saint-Simon and Liselotte, the duchess of Orleans, detested her outright; "diabolical," Liselotte called her, and an "old hag." Buckley, in line with more recent historians, takes a far more sympathetic view. She casts Françoise as a plucky woman who sought love and security all her life and found them with the greatest king of the age. She indulges in some novelistic embroidery as she pursues this rather sentimental portrait, and on a few regrettable occasions, her prose slips deep into harlequin-romance territory: "It was all simply wonderful. France was at the pinnacle of her glory, and Louis le Grand, Françoise's own husband, reveling in the fullness of his mature manhood, was at the pinnacle of his."