PARIS — A new New York Times/Siena College poll shows Anthony Weiner still in fourth place among voters in the race for mayor of New York.
Weiner’s sexting scandal has been top news in the American media for, what must seem to him, an interminable amount of time. Back in May, when he announced his campaign, the media repeatedly referenced his resignation from Congress two years ago because of his sexting activities. For a moment it seemed New York voters had forgiven him, when some polls showed him leading the field of candidates. But last month, Weiner acknowledged that he had continued sexting after his resignation, and his support plummeted.
It’s too bad Weiner’s not French. He might have a chance to win here.
Adultery, mistresses and affairs by politicians are all considered mere gossip – not serious news — by the French. There is an almost total separation between private and public life in France. A man can effectively run a country or a city, while being an adulterer. In France, Weiner’s behavior would be a nonissue.
François Mitterrand, the beloved former Socialist president who served from 1981-1995, had a second family — a mistress and child for whom taxpayers even footed the bill (albeit unhappily, with regard to the bill). But we don’t need to go as far back as Mitterrand to see how tolerant the French are with their leaders. Consider current socialist President François Hollande, who before becoming president in 2012, was in a long-term relationship with Ségolène Royal, who herself ran against Nicolas Sarkozy for president in 2007. Holland and Royal were never married and have four children together. They are no longer a couple, but she is still very much part of the political landscape in France. And Holland now has a new partner — Valérie Trierweiler, who is sometimes referred to in the foreign media as the First Girlfriend. Nobody here cares.
When former President Bill Clinton faced impeachment because of his extramarital relationship with Monica Lewinsky, the French could not — and still don’t — understand why le pauvre Bill was impeached.
Now, it was a different story in 2011 when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund and a front-runner for president of France, was brought up on rape charges in New York. French politicians and media, in particular, asked questions because there is a difference between a seducer and an attacker. Disapproval of DSK’s behavior was a rare occurrence, because criminal charges were filed. (Even so, the French were mortified that U.S. authorities handcuffed him and subjected him to a televised perp walk.) Weiner’s activities would not be taken seriously, were he a politician in France.
I’ve seen nothing here about Weiner on television news, unlike a few weeks ago when I saw several pieces on another big story in the United States, the Trayvon Martin shooting case. I have read a handful of articles about Weiner online. La Parisienne, Le Monde, Le Point and Libération, have written about Weiner, but the coverage primarily focused on how the American media is handling the scandal.
One might expect French males to shrug off Weiner’s behavior, but the responses of my female friends didn’t surprise me either. When I asked my friend Elodie if she thinks Weiner’s sexting was a problem for his mayoral candidacy she said: “He cheated on his wife, and that’s his problem. That’s not our business. As long as he does his work very well, we don’t care.”
Another friend, Fatima, who is of Algerian and French descent, added “Well that should be between him and his wife, right? I wonder how she’s dealing with all that. But for the job, if he’s qualified, why not?”
Based on my experiences living in France for the past 14 years, I’m certain I’d get the same answer if I asked 100 different French citizens. Weiner’s story just wouldn’t be a story here. He wouldn’t need to go on television and ask for a second chance because the media wouldn’t be covering his sexting in the first place. If people somehow did find out about it, through tabloids such as Public or Closer, most people would dismiss it.
So where does that leave me, an American expat in France? Well, in a bit of a quandary, I’m afraid. I’ve had conversations with my expat friends, and on the one hand, we’re still very American. We understand that our politicians are human, but we want them to at least strive to be better than the average citizen. What they say and what they do reflect who they are and what they might do in office. For me, Weiner has already used his get-out-of-jail-free card. Would I vote for him? No, I would not. There’s something about him that’s unalluring and over the top. His repeated blunders call into question his leadership ability.
All the same, we wouldn’t want to see Weiner’s name in the headlines every single day of the week either. Here’s where the “Frenchness” comes in, and I suppose I was like this even before moving here. I remember living in New York and cringing about the Bill Clinton scandal. I wanted to give him a chance because he was a great leader. I could not fathom why he had to be thoroughly scourged, and I was embarrassed about what the world thought of us as Americans. As many countries, including France, pointed out, Clinton was a good president. and if Hillary was standing by him, why couldn’t we? So at the end of the day, I’m both American and French.
But the mayoral election is being played out in the United States and not here in France. Tant pis for Weiner.