SO, DEJEAN, we're sleeping around?" Firing his ambassador to Moscow in 1964, French President Charles de Gaulle dropped one of his very rare risque comments. But Maurice Dejean had fallen into the clutches of Lora, a swallow of the KGB, and the Cold War was in full swing. The foreign policy of France could not permit itself to become a hostage to diplomatic indiscretions.
With domestic politics, it is entirely another matter -- an issue raised in the United States by Democratic candidate Bill Clinton's alleged infidelity. A little more than a decade ago, the president of the French republic, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, at the wheel of his car, crashed into a milk truck very early one morning. Next to him was a famous actress who bore absolutely no resemblance to France's first lady. The French smiled with an understanding air. The aristocratic chief of state had proved he was indeed one of them. The public, which is fascinated above all by automobiles, mainly remembered one detail: the president was driving a two-cylinder "Deux Chevaux" Citroen.
The love life of politicians amuses the French -- it does not interest them. In their eyes, the somersaults of their political elites, conjugal or clandestine, do not constitute a focus of attention, much less a campaign issue. The French, who are as anxious about their present as they are proud of their past, are particularly fond of their long royal saga. Enthroned by the grace of God for life, the kings of France often succumbed to the call of adulterous flesh. Installed in their duties by the will of the people for several short years, the elected of the republic nevertheless find the time to ape their former monarchs. A reasonable, discreet lechery on the part of a presidential candidate will be excused. A divorce more offends proprieties because it does not leave appearances intact. With these reservations, a French candidate enjoys a liberty that would render aspirants to the White House jealous. Mr. Clinton would not believe his ears but, in a French presidential campaign, some rumors, subtly put out about the amorous abilities of the candidate -- even if they are false -- confer upon him a valuable Gallic authenticity.
In the United States, several newspapers are conducting a trial against the governor of Arkansas that his own wife, the charming Hillary, has decided not to do. After all, Mr. Clinton has already acknowledged that his marriage has had difficulties. By what right do the media and the public substitute themselves for the Clinton family to evaluate the intimate relations between the governor and his wife? For the Clintons do not seem traumatized by the presumed activities of the head of the family.
The media inquisition of the sexual life of Mr. Clinton does not reflect American opinion. That inquisition is shocking. Worse, it is useless. An unfaithful spouse will not necessarily make a bad president. Look at Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy. The continuing penchant of FDR for an old flame did not keep him from becoming not only a model president but an American idol. Ike, who liberated Europe from the Nazis while he was having an affair with his car driver, became an adequate president. JFK, a frenetic Don Juan, did not waver when Nikita Khrushchev sought to introduce missiles into Cuba. On the other hand, the incorruptible virtue of Jimmy Carter helped him but little when faced with the taking of the hostages at the American embassy in Tehran.
The scrutiny that American democracy gives to its highest officials is an admirable example that France should follow. That would keep it from sometimes having at the head of its secret services a somewhat unstable man or appointing as a minister a man implicated in crimes against humanity. It is therefore regrettable when sex makes the American confirmation process skid into a porno-tragicomic sniggering, as was the case last autumn, with Judge Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill.
The America of the Puritans has not yet succeeded in normalizing its relations with sin. The modern Torquemadas of the press ought to understand that, without proportion, morality does not rhyme for very long with dignity. There are many things more serious having to do with presidential candidates than marital unfaithfulness. Would the media pressure be as strong if Mr. Clinton had been accused of having beaten his wife? The incredible violence that is displayed each day on television screens is more dangerous than the eroticism that is banned. Would the United States not want to exchange its world record for murders for, for example, the world record for adultery? Occasionally to glimpse a few breasts or a buttock is not more unwholesome for young Americans than to be present every day at the rapes and murders on screens large and small. To enliven inner cities, some kisses on public benches would be better than the mass murderers with AK-47s.
Adultery is serious, the Puritans insist, because it reveals a weakness in judgment, an incapacity to honor one's original commitments. In their eyes, if Bill Clinton could not respect his marriage contract, he could cheat the American public. When George Bush promised, during his 1988 campaign, that he would not raise taxes and, two years later, went back on his word, it is not a person he deceived. It was millions of Americans. Even if all of them kept their clothes on.
Stephane Marchand is the U.S. bureau chief for Le Figaro, a Paris daily.