Dangerous liaisons: why the French still do it in style

The latest sociologists' myth is that Frenchmen no longer have mistresses, they only have affairs
Click to follow
THE BUSY hive of Parisian sociologists, pollsters and trend analysts who delight in smashing national stereotypes, informing us that the French no longer drink wine, eschew the baguette, and are even thinking about giving up smoking Gitanes, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

In recent years these specialists in demythification have been busy creating a myth of their own: that Frenchmen no longer have mistresses, but only affairs followed by divorce and remarriage, just like les Anglo-Saxons.

It took the biggest financial scandal of the post-war era and a leggy, loquacious brunette to give the lie to this nonsense. Among the mendacity, bribery and money-laundering that swirled murkily around in the Elf national oil company, Christine Deviers-Joncour seemed to be the lady who took all.

As a paid consultant of the company, not only did she carry suitcases stuffed with millions of francs in cash from Paris to Switzerland ("they were very heavy", she remarked later), she also ferried messages, instructions and little presents between her boss, Elf's financial director Alfred Sirven and her lover Roland Dumas, Minister of Foreign Affairs and close adviser of the then President Francois Mitterrand.

Christine was exceptionally well set up by her lover and employer. She had a vast and gilded apartment in the seventh arrondissement of Paris that cost Elf about pounds 2m.

Here, using the lavishly provisioned Elf credit card, she decorated in fabulous style, dressed in couture and entertained Dumas and the good, the bad and the ugly of the day - not least by playing on the grand piano also bought for her.

Here was a mistress to end all mistresses, who out-pompadoured Pompadour, who was kept in grand luxe not only by a wealthy man, but by a state-owned conglomerate who used her to sweeten a minister. Or was it vice versa? The final story has not yet been told. No wonder, when the scandal broke, Christine called herself la putain de la Republique - the Republic's whore - when she sat down to write her memoirs during a sobering period in jail.

The other day Christine acted out another chapter in the melodrama - that of the woman scorned - when she revenged herself on Dumas. She had consistently maintained that he had had nothing to do with Elf's dirty money. But when he dropped her in her trouble - "didn't even send a flower" - she dropped him in the judicial soup. Everything had been done, all money spent, at his instigation, she revealed. Dumas was forced from his cushy retirement post as president of the Constitutional Council, and the case against him has been reopened.

Another liaison recently ended in resignations and gnashings of teeth, when the former prime minister Edith Cresson's faiblesse for a provincial dentist helped bring down not only her but also the whole European Commission.

Cresson, who had been commissioner for education and science, had employed Rene Berthelot, with whom she had been living for years, on a salary of some pounds 50,000 a year to do little more than travel to and from their French home base at Chatellerault. "She can't do without me," Rene used to boast when Edith was PM and he had a room in the Hotel Matignon, the French 10 Downing Street.

A twist in that tale is that Edith Cresson was one of president Mitterrand's many mistresses years ago."My little soldier", he used to call the feisty redhead. When he made her minister of agriculture, however, angry farmers called her la parfumee du president - the president's floozie.

Mitterrand was a master in the kingly art of having his marital cake and eating it - and making the state pay for it. The French were amazed and fascinated - rather than shocked - when their sphynx-like leader was publicly mourned by two families when he died in 1996. It then emerged that the shadowy second family, Anne Pingeot and her daughter Mazarine, had been kept at taxpayers' expense in an annexe of the Elysee Palace for years. All part of the clandestine financial subculture of a corrupt regime that is now slowly being unravelled by the lawyers investigating Elf, the affairs of Credit Lyonnais and other relics of Mitterrandism.

"He is interested only in money and death", one of the president's victims once said of him. Certainly troublesome people at his court tended to die off suddenly, and it was said last week by a former aide that "if Mitterrand had been alive, Dumas would already be dead".

Money - a lot of it - rather than murder, is the key to keeping a mistress. And this is what the aforesaid sociologists have been pointing out. Frenchmen, says Michel Platte (among others) "have been forced to give up institutionalised infidelity" because few of them can afford the little flat on the Left Bank, the gifts and the bills and perhaps the annuity for life. Still less can they afford to risk divorce, to which a wronged French wife now quite quickly resorts, no longer content to accept the role of wife and mother and a lifetime of security in exchange for giving her husband permission to range free.

Cecile Abdesselam, another social pundit, revealed that those men who do stray (and one in five French husbands is unfaithful at some time) are not suave Latin lovers as imagined by Nancy Mitford; they get into dreadful tangled messes. Their affairs become anguished and they find themselves caught between a mistress demanding marriage and a wife who'll divorce him if she finds out about the mistress. It sounds depressingly more like the plot of a dreary Hollywood movie than a sexy French farce.

Only a millionaire as wealthy as the late Sir James Goldsmith can afford to say that "when you marry your mistress you create a vacancy". Or, of course, a senior politician with access to unlimited funds of a big nationalised company.