Sep 6th 2008

How the French take their sex in stride

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

BORDEAUX -- Our glamorous, doe-eyed Minister of Justice, Rachida Dati, is the talk of France again - this time over her surprise pregnancy. Always controversial, she has now added spice to the gossip by politely declining to reveal who the father is.

"My private life is complicated," she says intriguingly. "I have always been an extremely independent and liberated woman."

Ms. Dati, 42, is the diminutive Islamic daughter of North African immigrant parents who shocked the French Catholic political base by winning the prestigious rank of minister 18 months ago. Her appointment was seen as a model of "diversity", the French effort to promote people on the basis of merit rather than family pedigree or elite diplomas.

As a top government official, she in charge of overseeing the criminal justice system and reforming the over-manned court structure - an incongruous fit for a woman with movie-star beauty and a wardrobe bursting with Dior gowns.

During her tenure, one of her brothers has gone to jail for drug trafficking but President Nicolas Sarkozy remains her most staunch supporter. He makes use of her as a battering ram against traditionalists in the justice system, one of his favorite examples of how to remake old-line French institutions. He is said to see his own political values and tough politics reflected in her fearless initiatives. "She has a steely determination," says one former French minister who has worked alongside her.

Sarkozy offered apparently genuine congratulations to her when she announced her news at a recent cabinet meeting.

Private dinner party chit-chat has been focusing on Ms. Dati's sex life since the revelations, however, and will only swirl in ever-larger circles until the father is identified. "Complicated?" a French lady friend said to me over dinner. "What is that supposed to mean? Okay, many lovers, but at the same time?"

French boundaries to extra-marital sexual activity stop there. One at a time seems to be the limit.

The most prominent possible father mentioned in print has been former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, a married father and member of the secret Catholic society Opus Dei. He has been seen frequently in Paris in recent months, including a couple of sightings in the company of Ms. Dati. His office in Madrid has issued a denial of paternity.

France is known for its casual attitudes to sex, with long traditions of happy liaisons outside marriage, but there have always been rules. In the past 50 years, taboos have disappeared on sex in the arts but personal sexual adventure still requires a double life. French men and women seem to tolerate their partners' free-wheeling love lives so long as they are discreet about it.

As a result, reaction to her pregnancy has been low-key and sympathetic in most quarters. This is an interesting case of social contrasts with the United States where unmarried mothers are still somewhat marginalized. The case of a pregnant teen-ager can jeopardize the career of a political mother as Bristol Palin's recent case impacted her mother, vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Party faithful supported the Palin girl but eyebrows danced in private throughout the country.

Ms. Dati told the newsweekly Le Point that she is no stranger to the boudoir, but her affairs seem to have ended badly. "In my journey as a woman, I have had so many painful experiences regarding motherhood," she said, "and I'm no longer 24 years old." This has been understood as a reference to previous miscarriages and justification for her current pregnancy.

She said she held back her present announcement until she was sure her baby was safe.

Ms. Dati is a close personal friend of Cécilia, the former wife of President Sarkozy. Cécilia told a journalist prior to her divorce, "She is a sweetheart, and so clever you can't believe it. People are careful what they say about her because she is an Arab woman (une beurette) who grew up in the suburbs. He specificity protects her."

THE DRAWING OF RACHIDA DATI IS BY THE WRITER, MICHAEL JOHNSON

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