Joan Smith: French sexual tolerance is wearing thin

Mitterrand: the minister who admits to using young prostitutes

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Turning on the television news in Paris one evening last week, I was astonished to find the presenters discussing excerpts from a book: "I got into the habit of paying for boys.... All these rituals of the market for youths, of the slave market, excited me enormously.... The abundance of very attractive and immediately available boys put me in a state of desire which I no longer needed to restrain or hide." It was jaw-dropping stuff, even more so when I discovered that the author was the recently-appointed culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, who is also a nephew of the Socialist former president.

Mitterrand is a controversial figure, better known as a television presenter than a politician. The explicit passages appeared in his 2005 autobiography The Bad Life, where he boasted about sexual encounters with boys ("garçons") in Thailand even while acknowledging "the sordid details of this traffic". He infuriated leading members of the French Socialist Party when he agreed in the summer to join President Sarkozy's right-wing government, and now claims that his autobiography was a mixture of real life and fiction. I'm tempted to say: well he would, wouldn't he? With so much on record about his own sexual history, Mitterrand would have been well advised to stay out of the row surrounding the arrest of the film director Roman Polanski, who skipped bail in 1978 after admitting the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl. Instead, he showed his political inexperience by demanding Polanski's immediate release in the most offensive terms. The blogosphere promptly lit up with allegations about his own use of young male prostitutes in Thailand.

Mitterrand may have believed he was safe because of the cherished French notion that politicians' private lives are sacrosanct, which allowed his uncle to maintain a secret second family with the full knowledge of the press. But his behaviour pushes the limits of French tolerance, not because of any innate puritanism – this is a country in which The Sexual Life of Catherine M was a huge bestseller – but because most people appreciate the difference between liberal sexual attitudes and sexual abuse. For his critics, Mitterrand's offence is all the greater because of his acknowledgement that the "boys" he paid for sex were forced into prostitution by poverty, and that their lives were ravaged by drugs and illness. He did himself no favours during an emotional appearance on French television on Thursday evening when he denounced sex tourism as "shameful", but admitted paying for sex with consenting adults in Thai brothels.

I have visited bars in Thailand where girls and boys offer sex to Western tourists, and it is a tragic spectacle; most of them look as though they should be in school, not having paid-for sex with middle-aged (and older) foreigners. The issue here isn't homosexuality; it's the exploitation of vulnerable youngsters of either sex by the commercial sex industry. Even if Mitterrand checked the birth certificates of his sexual partners, he is still guilty of encouraging a trade which wrecks the lives of countless young people. (An "error", he now says, though not a "crime".) It helps him a little that the initial demands for his resignation came from Marine Le Pen, daughter of the notorious National Front leader, and that the French Socialist Party is split over whether or not to support him.

But I found a gathering of French journalists and politicians united in incredulity about the Mitterrand affair last week, and a television reporter assured me that her country's reticence towards private life certainly doesn't extend to sexual exploitation. The French government is campaigning against sex tourism, and Mitterrand's grudging admission of "error" may not keep him in his job for long. French social attitudes are evolving, as Polanski and now Mitterrand have found to their cost.

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