Clinton, the oversized adolescent

IN ITALY, they can't get enough of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. On Tuesday, the day after the President testified by video link to the grand jury in Washington, la Repubblica led on "le confessioni di Clinton", accompanied by a cartoon in which he performed a striptease - complete with stars and stripes boxer shorts - for the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr.

In France, where I have spent the past week, they affect an altogether loftier tone towards sexual scandals, with the President's four-hour interrogation relegated to page five of Liberation. In cafes along the Cote d'Azur, as soon as you mention Mr Clinton, total strangers lean over to convey, with exaggerated Gallic gestures, their impatience with foreigners who get so worked up about sex.

I have some sympathy with this view, although I don't subscribe to the widely held opinion that they manage these things better in France. It's true that the late President Mitterrand was able to keep his mistress and daughter quiet for most of his two terms of office, even though their existence was known to the press. All this proves, however, is that hypocrisy about sexual matters takes a different form in Catholic countries such as France than in nominally secular ones such as the United States.

Did Mme Mitterrand mind that her husband was unfaithful, or that French journalists turned a blind eye as long as his liaison was conducted with discretion? We do not know, any more than we know what Hillary Clinton makes of her husband's televised admission that he had a relationship with Ms Lewinsky which was "not appropriate" and "wrong".

Mr Clinton is correct, though not for the reasons he offered. The effect of his mea culpa is to drive sex back into the closet, to turn desire into something grown men are not supposed to feel - certainly not act upon.

If this appears to fly in the face of the sympathy I expressed a moment ago for Mrs Clinton and Mme Mitterrand, it is because all the people involved in these triangular affairs are to some extent in denial - and it is denial, rather than sex, which is causing all the trouble.

It is clear from anecdotal evidence and surveys alike that sexual desire for new partners is rarely extinguished by marriage. For many couples - and I make no distinction between men and women here - boredom in bed is as potent a source of discord as squabbles about money. Yet we pretend that fidelity is the norm - or, if we happen to be French, make private arrangements to maintain appearances - and agonise over lapses from it.

It has been clear ever since he emerged as the Democrats' presidential candidate that Bill Clinton is an attractive, highly sexed man. He also has alarming tendencies to talk in public about God, and his family, presenting a very different picture to voters. And this, for feminists such as myself who used to see a lot to like in Mr Clinton, is the difficulty. Like President Mitterrand, and Prince Charles when he married Lady Diana Spencer, he seems to have decided that he cannot be honest about his sexual feelings - and the consequences, as we have learnt, are ludicrous.

His relationship with Ms Lewinsky was an absurd parody of an affair, an infantile regression to masturbation - not even mutual masturbation, unless I have missed an important detail - whose purpose was to maintain the fiction that the President had not broken his marriage vows. I would have far fewer problems with Mr Clinton's behaviour if he had had full sex with Ms Lewinsky and frankly admitted it when he was first questioned in January. "I had an affair. So what?" is nothing like as seedy a response as last week's strangulated admission. It would have been humiliating for Mrs Clinton, but no more so than accounts currently circulating which portray her husband as a fumbling, over-sized adolescent.

The course Mr Clinton has chosen means that there has been no serious discussion of sexuality, just a series of dirty jokes. (Last Monday, an enterprising advertising agency in Israel began running a campaign for detergent in which FBI agents burst into an apartment and throw open a wardrobe, searching for the famous semen-stained dress. The pay-off is that the wonder product not only gets rid of the stain but changes the colour of the dress from blue to white.) In effect, Mr Clinton is still paying lip service to an ideal of lifelong fidelity which many men and women now regard as an impossible - not even a desirable - goal.

Mr Clinton's dilemma, when he decided to go into politics, was how to reconcile his sexuality and his ambitions. He chose the traditional male route of dissimulation, deceiving his wife and eventually treating Ms Lewinsky with all the consideration another man might show a blow-up sex toy. Whether I am right in this interpretation of his conduct, or you prefer the alternative explanation that Mr Clinton is a voyeur who actually likes getting his kicks that way, last week's events lead to the same inescapable conclusion. O tempora, o mores. The President of the United States is a wanker.