The alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid by IMF chief and possible French presidential candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn is not just a terrible crime. It's also a clash of civilizations—pitting the puritanical, moralizing Americans against the libertine French. "The French are legendary for nonchalance toward the sexual appetites of their politicians,"notes the Wall Street Journal editorial page. "Until today, complicated sexual lives, multiple divorces and serial adultery never hampered [French] political careers,"writes a columnist in London's Telegraph.
It's true that French politicians are notorious for their lascivious ways. Francois Mitterrand famously had a second family while he was president of France. When a reporter confronted him about his love child, Mitterrand said, "So what?" Jacques Chirac had so many women around, according to his former chauffeur, that his staffers gave him the nickname "three minutes, shower included." Nicolas Sarkozy divorced his wife and married a supermodel while in office. That's not to say France tolerates sexual assault. But there's a sense among Americans that, when it comes to the compatriots of Pepe Le Pew, sexual aggression is a given, along with berets and a penchant for Camembert.
Americans have no right to tut. U.S. politicians may be just as rakish as their French counterparts—and they get away with it, too. In 2007, only 39 percent of Americans said they'd be less willing to vote for someone if they'd had an extramarital affair. The numbers split along partisan lines, with 62 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats saying they'd be less likely to vote for a cheater. In practice, the numbers seem to be even lower, as cheaters—even Republican ones—remain popular and reliably return to office.
Time was, infidelity was enough to disqualify a politician from holding office. Nelson Rockefeller failed to win the 1964 Republican presidential nomination after divorcing his wife and marrying Margaretta "Happy" Murphy, with whom he'd been carrying on an affair for years. Gary Hart's presidential candidacy sank in 1987 after the revelation that he had a fling with the 29-year-old model Donna Rice.
Those affairs seem tame by today's standards. Nowadays, if a politician confesses infidelity right away, all is forgiven. When the extracurricular activities of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles were revealed in 2007, he apologized. He won a second term in 2009. Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana fessed up immediately when his name appeared on the client list of the D.C. Madam. "I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling," Vitter told the Associated Press at the time. Voters agreed with God, re-electing Vitter to a second term in 2010.
Politicians pay a price only when they commit "infidelity plus." The most common variety is infidelity plus deceit: "It's not about the cheating—it's about the lying." That mantra, repeated in marital therapy sessions across the country, also explains the American people's voting habits. John Edwards' political career might not be over if he hadn't lied first about his cheating, then about his child with Rielle Hunter, all while his wife was dying of cancer. Infidelity plus hypocrisy is a deal-breaker, too, as Eliot Spitzer learned when he turned from vocal critic of New York prostitution rings to their patron. (His candor on the subject ever since has bolstered—if not restored—his popularity.)
Another exception is infidelity plus crime. Perhaps the No. 1 beneficiary of the Strauss-Kahn news is former Sen. John Ensign, whose affair with the wife of his one-time chief of staff was publicly dissected in a report by the Senate ethics committee on Friday. Cheating is the least of it. (Although it may be the best: "I know exactly what you are doing," Ensign's "spiritual adviser" once told him over the phone. "Put your pants on and go home.") Ensign then used his parents' money to give the husband a $96,000 "severance" package when he left Ensign's office and pressured political contributors and constituents to hire him.
Ensign resigned in April, presumably when he learned the thrust of the ethics committee report. But that was two years after he publicly admitted to having had an affair. It wasn't the hanky-panky that sank Ensign. It was the evidence of possible criminal activity.
Further proof that Americans just don't care about charges of infidelity: Nikki Haley, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain, all of whose alleged infidelities hardly figure into their current public images.
The comparison with France doesn't even make sense anymore. If anything, as the United States becomes more tolerant of infidelity, the French are becoming less so. In the past, respectable French media never exposed their leaders' romantic peccadilloes. Now, speculation about Sarkozy's married life is front-page news. Ségolène Royal kicked her husband out of the house and told the press all about it. At this rate, pretty soon we'll be the libertines and they'll be the prudes.