Sunday, March 1, 1998

Le Zippergate

When Harry, the eponymous hero of Woody Allen's latest movie, quips back to his sister who's just accused him of believing only in "cynicism, sarcasm and orgasm" that in France, he could "run on that platform," audiences in packed Paris movie theaters howl in appreciative laughter.

"After all," one spectator joked coming out, with no hint of reproach in his voice, "that was indeed François Mitterrand's unofficial platform."

Deconstructing Harry is tipped for the César of the Best Foreign Film in a few days: we French adore Americans who understand us so well.

At for all the others, those who fuel the Monicagate furore and seem to want to get rid of Bill Clinton for a mere peccadillo, we shrug in Gallic incomprehension. Then sly enlightenment dawns on our faces: once more, in true Gaullist tradition, we'll be able to smugly sock it to the Yanks.

Besides, the French like their leaders to have a sex drive. Widen this to a sensual drive. We like them to eat, drink, and be merry. We prefer by far Talleyrand, with his corruption and womanising, to Robespierre, who lived blamelessly in a tiny walk-up apartment on rue Saint-Honoré, from which he would walk to the Revolutionary Assembly and sentence hundreds of people to the guillotine daily. One of favourite kings was Henry IV, the Religious Wars peacemaker whose second most favourite quote is "Madame, until age 40 I thought it was made of bone."

In a country that thought a good rap on the knuckles would have been amply sufficient punishment for Richard Nixon, "the most brilliant player in world policy at the time," Le Figaro's then foreign editor, Robert Lacontre, used to write the idea of impeaching a leader who presided over a fall of the unemployment rate to 4% (ours is at 12.2%) and the doubling of the Dow Jones index is absurd.

Our pols can be straight or gay (both the former spokesman of the Socialist party and the Mayor of Marseilles are gay): all that matters is that they're getting some. We want them potent, in every meaning of the term.

Even our Reds are no Puritans: the Communist union leader Henri Krasucki worried comrades and foes alike by staying single and living with his elderly mother until well in his fifties - then everyone heaved a sigh of relief on the day of his marriage. CP historical leader Georges Marchais lived openly with his mistress until the early Eighties - the kind of conduct that could have sent an East German or Soviet pol into disgrace. The only disgrace some can find in themselves to ascribe Clinton is the distressing lack of sophistication of his pants-dropping wooing style. "But does he get results like that?" one bemused, faintly supercilious senior Elysée aide asked me as I explained the alleged circumstances of the Paula Jones incident.

Similarly, the only thing that shocked the French about the Bank of England sex scandal (when deputy governor Rupert Pennant-Rea's career came to an abrupt end after it transpired he was having a torrid affair at his office) were the squalid logistical details. No Frenchwoman would do it on Governor Trichet's Banque de France office carpet (it helps that the Republic provides Trichet with a 9000 sq. ft flat at the Palais Royal, the most beautiful location in Paris.)

Not only do we want our men to have cojones we want our women to have them too. Monicagate managed to raise yet higher, if it was possible, Hillary Clinton's popularity in France. We love Hillary. Hillary could be French: she's razor-sharp, sophisticated, elegant, ruthless if need be, and a lioness to defend her man.

Even for those who understand that the issue is less sex than lying and perjury, the reaction doesn't vary. "But whyever ask him in the first place?" inquires Conservative député André Santini. "Any man will lie if asked whether he has a mistress. It's kinder to everyone involved. Nobody needs lose face over it."

"Wanting to know everything about a man is the mark of the totalitarian mind," the leader writer of the provincial newspaper "Sud Ouest" wrote, echoing André Malraux's famous quote: "What is a man but a miserable little heap of secrets?"

And the right to keep one's own secrets is deeply valued by the French, to the extent that our country, where habeas corpus is unknown and the police enjoy rights unknown in England or America, boasts one of the most extensive laws against cross-referencing electronic databases. We are old Catholics and do not believe in Perfect Man an idealistic, Reformation notion. One of our few favoured Bible quotes is "who aspires to be an angel becomes a beast."

Yvette Roudy, a Socialist député and former (quite militant) Minister for Women's Rights, says those who would accuse Bill Clinton of sexual harassment, be it over Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky, are doing women a "true disservice. Sexual harassment is a real evil that must be stamped out. It can include loss of job and health, deep depression induced over months of pressure and bad treatments on the workplace. Demeaning the accusation by using it over a case in which Clinton took no for an answer at once; or another on which both parties were major and apparently willing, makes women look ridiculous and hysterical."

Madame Roudy, let's face it, in one of the very few to look seriously at the possible consequences of "Braguettegate" (Zippergate), as it is called here.

Most politicians, commentators, and private citizens are just enjoying the giggle with a vengeance. Early on, the widely popular satirical puppet show Les Guignols de l'Info showed, on prime time, a police line-up of line-drawn penises, one largely tattooed with a saxophone, in which Mss. Lewinsky & Jones had to pick the guilty party. Left- and Right-wing députés who a week before had come to fisticuffs on the floor of the House over the Dreyfus affair, paraded for TV cameras in happy harmony. Newspapers all ran headlines punning on various equivalents of the English verb "blow."

Of late, though, a more thoughtful note has crept into the comments: "The real pity would be if Clinton's little bit of fun affected his foreign policy performance," says Michel Gurfinkiel, the editor of the newsweekly Valeurs Actuelles.

On Friday, after president Chirac (who shares with Clinton a love for food and various romantic links, the latest to the actress Claudia Cardinale) decided to support the US over the Iraqi threat, the Guignols de l'Info puppet anchor blared "Clinton conclusively proves the 'butterfly effect' in chaos theory: Unzipping a fly in Washington causes steel rain in Baghdad."

© Copyright Pittsburgh Post-Gazette & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1998

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