Are the French more tolerant of infidelity than the British?
That question was put to author Yasmina Reza, whose collection of short stories Happy Are the Happy has just been published, on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour last week.
The French author was interviewed on the subject of ‘affaires de coeur’ – something the characters in her books and plays indulge in regularly.
Yasmin denied there was anything quintessential in French culture which leads married couples to stray beyond the master bedroom.
She also claimed British people are just as likely to be tempted into having a fling – the only difference is, they talk about it less.
It seems, on further research, that Yasmin’s claim is backed up by the statistics.
A 2007 book called Lust in Translation analysed the extra-marital goings-on of couples all over the world.
Concluding that the World Cup of infidelity belongs to Sub-Saharan Africa (including Togo, where a whopping 37 per cent of men confessed to cheating on their wives), the book’s author Pamela Druckerman admitted she was surprised by the results.
In a nationwide survey cited in the book, just two per cent of French women and 3.7 per cent of French men admitted to having an affair in the previous year.
In contrast, a similar survey revealed that 9.3 per cent of British men and five per cent of British women had been unfaithful in the preceding 12 months.
So we’re twice as likely to stray as the French, apparently.
This came as a bit of a surprise to me.
I suppose I’d just assumed the country’s politicians represented a general cultural trend.
Mitterand, Sarkozy, Hollande...whatever their political persuasion, they all have a reputation for philandering. A reputation so pervasive it was recently commandeered to advertise a global website which offers its (married) users a forum in which to find a lover.
Using the tagline ‘Life is short. Have an affair’, the French launch of Ashley Madison featured lipstick-covered photographs of several French political leaders, asking: ‘What do they all have in common?’
“The French understand that infidelity is just part of the human condition,” said the site’s founder Noel Biderman. “If [a husband or wife] is found out it is not necessarily cataclysmic, it doesn’t have to be the end of a relationship.”
However distasteful we find it, the worldwide popularity of websites promoting extra-marital affairs demonstrates that infidelity is endemic. This site alone now has 24 million members.
And according to Pamela Druckerman, women in developed countries are much more likely to stray – they have the means, the money and the status to do so, and face fewer repercussions if caught.
What struck me about the interview with Yasmina Raza (who wrote the West End smash Art) was her acceptance of infidelity as a fact of life.
As the interviewer pointed out, the very fact there are so many words for flings in France, from l’aventure to les liaisons dangereuses, indicates a cultural difference.
Whereas in England we would prefer to adhere to the illusion of monogamy, in France there seems to be a tacit understanding that one’s partner may, in fact, cheat.
Websites promoting infidelity also promise discretion (although surely receiving 10 texts a day urging you to get jiggy with a lonely spouse who ‘winked’ at your profile might arouse suspicion in even the most un-Sherlock of partners?).
But maybe it’s precisely our pretence and concealment of the truth that breeds toxicity in relationships.
Perhaps in the end, England’s 40 per cent + divorce rate is less attributable to infidelity and more reflective of the unrealistic expectations we place on our relationships?