BOSTON — Amid the multitude of conflicting “facts” in the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, there's one key detail that everyone agrees on: a sexual act occurred between the French politician and the Sofitel maid on May 14. Strauss-Kahn says it was consensual. The maid alleges that he sexually assaulted her. But no one denies it happened.
That fact has shined a spotlight on Strauss-Kahn’s wife, and in general, on the peculiar status of dalliances in French marriages.
Despite Strauss-Kahn's admitted infidelity, his wife, Anne Sinclair, has devotedly supported him. While he was in Rikers Island prison, she issued a statement contending he was innocent. She’s treated him more like a princely victim than a cheater. When he needed an apartment to which he would be confined on house arrest, she chose one of Manhattan’s priciest rentals, a lavish Tribeca townhouse. When he appears in court, she stands by his side, softening his image for the world’s cameras. Most recently, after the conditions of his released were eased, the couple has been photographed on the streets of New York; on one occasion, his arm gently presses against her back, chivalrously guiding her into a black Mercedes.
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It’s a spectacle familiar to Americans: a show of marital loyalty despite a powerful husband’s public betrayal — in this case, with a maid (a maid!) during a layover to see his daughter. Whatever the details, the image of an unfaithful spouse being treated humanely by the jilted wife piques the curiosity of anyone who’s taken marriage vows. Whether it’s Hillary and Bill Clinton, Silda Wall-Spitzer and Eliot Spitzer or any number of other famously challenged couples, the public wonders about how they treat one another behind closed doors — even if it’s really none of our business.
In France, affairs have long been something that you engage in rather than read about in the media. So this very public infidelity remains jolting — even more so considering Sinclair’s status as a successful and powerful woman in her own right.
Sinclair was one of France’s most popular television journalists before stepping aside to avoid professional conflicts of interest with Strauss-Kahn’s political career. She’s an heir to a spectacular fortune amassed by art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who represented Pablo Picasso. She’s also divorced. And she has long known of Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a womanizer. In other words, she’s not the type who needs to, or feels compelled to, hold on to the coattails of her spouse.
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So, given the humiliation, why does she stand by her man? If exclusivity is the glue of relationships, why does any woman accept a cheating spouse? That’s a question that now grips France. Nearly two months after the allegations surfaced, the country is engaging in an unusual level of introspection about the state of French marriages and relationships.
In part, the answer is cultural. There’s truth to the conventional wisdom that the French are relatively understanding of philandering spouses. France has long acknowledged an institution known as a “cinq a sept,” or a “five to seven,” a quickie afternoon tryst with a paramour between work and home.
Statistics confirm this. A 2008 study cited by Le Monde found that a minority of French men and women — only 40 percent — regard infidelity as “never justified.” In contrast, in a 2011 Gallup poll, 91 percent of Americans responded that it was “morally wrong for married men or women to have an affair.”
Le Monde took up the topic over the weekend. In an article titled “Women’s complacency about cheating husbands,” France’s highbrow, center-left paper asked psychologists to explain what drives French wives to accept unfaithfulness. The motives are as surprising as they are diverse.
Some women accept a cheater “because the qualities they appreciate in him surpass fidelity,” clinical psychologist Maryse Vaillant told the paper. “These are strong women, not victims…. [They are] capable of distinguishing what’s essential from what is secondary. They know their husbands need conquests to feel confident in themselves, and they accept it,” she said.
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This way of thinking derives from a “maternal attitude” under which certain women “take pleasure in their husbands behaving like little boys who chase skirts and then return, rather than like men who feel responsible for the security and well-being of their families,” added Bernard Voizot, a member of the Societe psychanalytique de paris (Paris Psychoanalytic Society). “A Woman who doesn’t forbid her husband from having sex with others can also get an illusion of omnipotence. In authorizing it, she places herself in a position superior to him.”
This latter reason appears to play a role in Sinclair’s case. In 2006 when L’Express magazine asked if she suffered from her husband’s reputation as a seducer, she responded that she was “proud” of it. “It’s important for a politician to seduce,” she said. “As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, that’s enough for me."
Competition can also play a role. Some women “need the rivalry of another woman to love a man. They want to feel triumphant over a rival, just as young girls fantasize about eliminating their mothers to have their fathers to themselves,” child psychologist Samuel Lepastier told Le Monde. He added that this sentiment also motivates women who have affairs with their friends’ husbands, or with other married men. “Often the day the man divorces, they lose all interest in him,” he said, having achieved their conquest.
Sociologist Charlotte Le Van, an author of four books on infidelity, offered Le Monde more conventional reasons for women accepting infidelity: an inability to face a breakup, especially because of children; or because the wives have low self-esteem. “These women tend to think that if the husband looks elsewhere, it’s because he doesn’t get what he needs at home. They complain, for example, about having gained weight after the birth of children, or about not feeling desirable, or about being a mother first and a wife second.”
She adds that such submission generally ends “upon the intrusion of the extra-conjugal in the family’s intimacy” — for example, upon discovering the mistress’s panties under the covers, or upon introducing her to the children. Others accept the dalliances because they feel that men’s sexual needs are stronger than their own, and they would prefer not to have sex too often, Le Van told the paper.
French attitudes are changing, however. In a sidebar, the paper noted that thirty years ago, only 26 percent of people surveyed found infidelity to be “never justified.” Moreover, of French citizens between 18 and 29 years old, only 61 percent said that faithfulness was important to the success of a marriage. In 2008, that number had increased to 90 percent.
Follow the author on Twitter @DavidCaseReport.