It was a calm, cold day when Barack Obama invited François Hollande to Monticello, Virginia, the grand mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, supporter of the French Revolution and early US envoy to France. “Monticello reflects Jefferson’s affection for the people of France, the long-standing relations between our two democracies, and the shared values we hold dear: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” the White House memo explained. That the French president had just recently pursued all three of these values rather vigorously was on everyone’s mind as they watched a dapper middle-aged man, now officially single and, less officially, involved with an actress almost 20 years his junior.
Much has been made of this “typically French” approach to love, sex and relationships; most of the comments came with their fair share of envious sideways glances. Even in France itself, the president’s secret romance with the glamorous Julie Gayet was considered by some as a rite of passage that transformed him from safe-but-lacklustre into a man of virility, a seducer, not afraid to ditch his partner of several years through a curt official statement. Who would have imagined that Hollande was a Casanova?
To me, as a German woman, it remains a mystery how French presidents always contrive to have at least one, if not two, spectacularly good-looking women at their side, even if they are just about average looking. But let’s address the more important question: would it work the other way round? Could Angela Merkel leave her stern-looking scientist husband Joachim Sauer for an actor 20 years her junior? And how would the media refer to him — as her toyboy? This is far from simply a feminist question. The issue at stake is how privacy is valued in Europe as opposed to the US — as I found out while following American coverage of Hollande’s state visit during my sabbatical in the Midwest.
It was the first state visit to America by a French president since the mid-1990s. As head of state Hollande received full honours — the ideological strains between the two countries during the Bush years, when French fries became “freedom fries”, seemed long gone, or at least well-hidden. With its military interventions in Mali, the Central African Republic and Libya, France has recently proved to be a surprisingly close ally of the US in what Obama no longer calls the war on terror. Hollande had, of course, not only come to enjoy the state banquet at the White House.
He also had some serious business to attend to, including the tax status in France of big American firms such as Google and Amazon, which made his hours in Silicon Valley somewhat challenging. Even more so since he encountered a culture that is — as open as it may be on the surface — almost traditionalist in its views on how to negotiate what is and what is not private. It has always struck me how peculiar American attitudes towards love, sex and relationships can feel. While I was living at Stanford in California in my mid-twenties, many of my fellow graduate students were married (and some already divorced), foregoing the status of having a boyfriend or girlfriend in favour of a settled existence. Studies suggest that Americans do indeed get married sooner than their European counterparts. The elaborate rules of dating seem to have codes that to the uninitiated appear positively medieval, an absurdly chaste way of controlling the natural laws of attraction — only to be complicated by wildly sexualised campus parties that would make an X-rated film seem tame by comparison.
The usual reaction to this perception is to assume that Americans fulfill the old stereotype of being prudish on the one hand and obsessed with physical matters on the other. Quite the opposite is the case: it is a matter of compartmentalising. When Hollande’s affair was mentioned it was mingled, sometimes, with a tone of amusement, but free of that peculiar mixture of outcry and envy, even though that would have been easy. Americans have had their fair share of unfaithful presidents and are, for better or worse, fascinated by the French. The state banquet was a case in point: Hollande came alone — and was left alone. As a single man, the travails of his private life remained his business.
It is a different matter altogether whether his domestic approval ratings will eventually recover — they are at an all-time low — but he reminded us that there is more than one type of personal relationship. It says a lot about Europe that he had to go to America to make that point, albeit unintentionally. Hollande went to America to discuss French and European concerns over data protection — in other words, in a quest to make privacy a common good.