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France Philosophical About Clinton Crisis

By Anne Swardson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 4, 1998; Page A26

PARIS—"L'affaire Clinton," as it is known here, has thrown France into a frenzy of its national sport, philosophizing.

In the great French tradition, the public and the intelligentsia are fascinated not by the details of "Monicagate," as headlines also call it, but by its deeper meaning -- on both sides of the Atlantic.

The country stereotypically known for tolerance of extramarital adventures by men in high office is accusing Americans of being excessively puritanical, but, at times, is discovering that the United States is perhaps more tolerant of les aventures (or alleged adventures) than had been believed.

The columns of major newspapers are filled with opinions of historians, philosophers, psychiatrists and political scientists about various aspects of the White House crisis in which President Clinton is accused of having a sexual relationship with a former White House intern and then asking her to lie about it.

The French fascination with Monica Lewinsky, the tapes, the White House denials and the American media obsession with the story casts the spotlight on the differences -- and similarities -- between the two countries.

It is widely agreed here that this sort of contretemps, whether justified or not, could not happen in France. The public not only tolerates the oft-stated, but unproven, fact that its leaders stray from the strictures of marriage, it does not care, and neither do the media.

Every president since Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s is rumored to have been a womanizer, although no proof has been offered except in the case of the second family of the late Francois Mitterrand. There appear to be few in France, for instance, who cannot name the Italian actress with whom President Jacques Chirac is said to be linked. (The presidential Elysee Palace firmly denies such allegations. French journalists say the denials are true but that Chirac allows the rumors to continue because he finds the idea flattering).

"There is an implicit consensus [that] you don't challenge the private life of presidents and ministers," said political scientist Denis Lacorne of the Institute of Political Studies. "It's a sort of gentlemen's agreement."

The French also are more comfortable with, if not lies, then shadings and ambiguities from their leaders. A cartoon in the latest issue of the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaine shows a man drinking at a bar. To a friend, he says: "If I were American, I wouldn't want my president to lie to me."

The French tolerate some lies more than others, however. When the public discovered shortly before his death in 1996 that Mitterrand had a second family, there was a mild wave of interest. But that reaction was nothing compared with the reverberations from the subsequent revelation that Mitterrand had concealed terminal prostate cancer for nearly all of his 14 years in office. Mitterrand's health was seen as a public issue because it threatened his ability to govern.

To French psychoanalyst Gerard Miller, the Clinton affair reveals the fundamental differences in the way the two nationalities view sex. Americans, he wrote in the magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, essentially want to be in on every secret of their president's sex life, especially if what is occurring is not of the missionary-position variety.

"If Clinton had consented to make love in a bed, or, even better, put out the light, he wouldn't be where he is," Miller wrote. In a telephone interview, he elaborated: "The French regard the affair differently for a simple reason: We don't relate to sexuality the same way you do. . . . The more forbidden something is, the more interested you are. I really think you are engaged in a phenomenon of collective perversity."

The importance Americans attach to observation, to full knowledge, also is at work, Miller said. "You need to see and touch. That's why television is so important. Your cameras roll 24 hours a day. You have a CNN ideology."

In France, by contrast, truth, such as it is, is learned through discussion. "We don't trust images. We think there are things we can't see, even when our eyes are wide open . . . We have the idea that in speaking, in exchanging ideas, we learn the truth," Miller said.

The Lewinsky episode has added more nuance to the general French view that Americans are excessively strait-laced, in their opinions if not in their activities.

To sociologist Eric Fassin, the episode illustrates the French tendency to view all American events, whether political, legal or other, as reflections of American culture, in this case, moralistic. "It used to be simple: American culture is puritan. Now people are having doubts. But they still don't know how else to look at it," he said.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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