One of the more irritating things about the French is their smug, quietly boastful attitude towards adultery. They are terribly good at it, we are told – so good, in fact, that infidelity is as intrinsic a part of the French quality of life as wine or cheese. Where the rest of the world cheats, the French have delightful, effortlessly organised affairs. While the English adulterer sidles home guiltily after a shifty bunk-up at the local Novotel, Papa and Maman are settling down for their evening meal with les petits, their loins still tingling from the tender exertions of the habitual break between work and home known as the cinq à sept.
When a British or American politician is caught up in some faintly absurd scandal, the French shake their heads incredulously and explain that such things are ordered better in France. At some point the word "civilised" will be deployed, as if a system of semi-institutionalised deception is a mark of moral sophistication.
So, at first glance, the news, in a new book, that President Jacques Chirac is an active member of the civilised tendency is hardly a surprise. Jean-Claude Laumond, who was Chirac's chauffeur for 25 years, claims that during that time his employer "had, to the point of nausea, activists and secretaries, all those who spent a busy five minutes with him on the sixth floor of party headquarters."
If one believes the propaganda about the French way of love, there is one startling aspect about these stories. It lies in those "five busy minutes". For Chirac, apparently, adultery was not so much a matter of cinq à sept as cinq à cinq heures cinq. "Chirac?" his female staff used to say. "Three minutes, shower included."
This seems all wrong – out of keeping with Chirac's sleek and hedonistic appearance. Somehow one could imagine him reclining in bed with his activist of the moment, a glass of Chablis in his hand, discussing la condition humaine in a moment of post-coital languor.
Instead, it turns out that he belongs to the quickie brigade – with Boris Becker in his restaurant cupboard, with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, with Georges Simenon who took his wife, or anyone else who happened to be passing, at such speed that he still managed to write his Maigret novels within six days. Another sprint specialist, Jack Kennedy, once told Harold Macmillan that unless he had a woman every day, he suffered from a headache (Supermac's reply is not recorded), and it's true that there is something unattractively urgent and medical, almost lavatorial, in these fumble-and-thrust events. They seem almost not to be about sex, to be something different altogether.
Laumond's insight into the private life of the president suggests that he was in particularly effective form after one of his wham-bam-thank-you-madame sessions. "It was a fountain of youth that allowed him to get on even better with his work," one interviewee explained.
More surprisingly, the president's activists and secretaries were pretty perky about it, too. "They came downstairs with their eyes twinkling and their tights twisted like corkscrews," as Laumond rather beautifully puts it.
This is a dangerous idea. It runs counter to the accepted Cosmopolitan view of female sexuality which, to be worth anything, is all about talk, foreplay, sensuality, touching, endlessly complex forms of completion, afterglow, more talk and so on.
Perhaps, in these busy times, we are moving into the age of the quickie. It should no longer be seen to belong to the normal rules of intimate morality, but might be regarded more as a form of stress relief, somewhere between a tea-break and an aerobic work-out. In this, as in other matters, those in Whitehall might usefully start thinking European and find time in their schedules for their own busy five minutes.