To experience the long-awaited Starr report on Bill, Monica, and the cigar in Paris is worth a semester-length course in French civilization. The papers all published lengthy extracts, and Le Monde, the paper “of record,” provided a sixteen-page summary-supplement in French only a few hours after the report’s release, as well as including both a complete translation and the complete English version on its website www.lemonde.fr . But although French and Americans are equally fascinated by the lurid details of the case, our reactions are quite different, the French interpretation of our common fascination being centered, as ours is not, on the very fact that it is common, which is to say, universal.
Americans, particularly those who have not been to France, tend to misinterpret the defining quality of French civilization as a superior refinement that contrasts with America’s more “natural” manners. In contrast, we believe we incarnate for the French the mythical “noble savage.” But the real difference is that in France the cultural is conceived as a means of embellishing the natural whereas in the USA it is a means of restraining it. The American in France is struck by a far greater tolerance for children urinating in the street, dogs entering restaurants, or politicians having affaires de coeur. Appetitive impulses are accommodated as long as nothing is done too obtrusively. There is no need for the familiar American anti-puritan stance of setting nature as a challenge to culture. The French have no beatniks, and French hippies are such in dress alone.
This accommodation of the natural inherited from its courtly past allows French culture even today, with its ubiquitous MacDonalds and blue jeans, to retain its unparalleled harmoniousness. But it also makes the French incapable of understanding the Lewinsky affair and, indeed, American democracy in general. Its amiable tolerance for the animal passions–a domain in which Hilary’s husband inspires a good deal of sympathy–deprives French culture of a productive tension omnipresent in our own, that between norms and laws. Just as there are no French beatniks, there are no French lawyer jokes either. These apparently unrelated cultural differences reflect two contrasting national positions in the modern market system.
Since Clinton’s American partisans seem unable or unwilling to understand the point of Kenneth Starr’s investigation any better than the French, it is worthwhile to rehearse the essence of the matter. The investigation into the Lewinsky affair did not originate in Starr’s prurience, however widely this scurrilous and infantile explanation has been echoed by supposedly respectable publications. (In one cleverly-written American newspaper column, an unnamed man described as obsessed by Monica’s thong underwear and phone sex conversations turns out in the last line to be not Clinton but Starr. In France, the respected weekly L’express devoted six pages of its September 17 issue to a luridly hostile psycho-biography of Starr, complete with photographs, destined to explain the otherwise inexplicable: ‘How can we explain the independent prosecutor’s zeal in crucifying Clinton for his sins? Perhaps by his frustrated youth, by his highly reactionary associations, and by a certain bitterness.’)
The central fact that bears repeating is that the point of departure for Starr’s investigation was the clear evidence of Clinton’s perjury in the Paula Jones case. As for those who blithely dismiss this perjury as falling within our implicit right to lie about our private sex lives, the reply is clear indeed: the questions about Lewinsky posed to Clinton in the Jones trial were anything but unwarranted intrusions into his “private” sex life. Paula Jones’ accusation, we should recall, alleged an egregious case of obscene behavior by a public official–behavior for anything similar to which I and most of my readers would lose our jobs in an instant. The purpose of this particular line of questioning was not to dig for dirt irrelevant to the accusation but to establish a pattern of irregular sexual activity in the workplace by a figure of high authority. And when Clinton lied under oath, it was not to protect his “privacy,” let alone his family, but to avoid providing corroborating evidence for Jones’s accusation that he displayed his penis to her and requested from her the very same act that he engaged in with Lewinsky. Unless we consider that a high official’s displaying his penis to a subordinate is a “private” activity of no concern to the legal system, we cannot maintain that questioning about similar activities is an invasion of privacy.
The hypocrisy of the erstwhile liberal protectors of the outraged Anita Hill is indeed mind-boggling. Jonathan Lear claims in the September 28 New Republic that we consider perjury a serious crime only because we expect the legal system to ignore “minor” perjuries like Clinton’s. How can lying about an action directly relevant to the charged offense be considered “minor”? There is an implication in all this that fails to examine its own premise, one that the French might accept, but that few Americans would: that legal forms are irrelevant so long as the offense is “about” something so trivial as sex.
In the United States, blindness to the seriousness of the charges against Clinton is a paradoxical effect of partisan politics that makes feminists of both sexes the political bedfellows of (Democratic) womanizers like Clinton and Teddy Kennedy. In contrast, the French defense of Clinton is an attack not simply on Starr et cie. but on American “puritanism.” The French are no less prurient than Americans, but they feel a lot less guilty about it. Nor should their dismissal of the Lewinsky affair be attributed to their secret guilt for having enjoyed reading the Starr report; rather, the pleasure they experience in reading the report is for them the proof of its triviality as a legal brief. The idea that Clinton’s activities fall within the domain of normal appetitive pleasure implies that they are of no more possible legal significance than Mitterand’s well-known womanizing. The idea that “normal” activity can become the basis for legal action–for example, when it is lied about–is foreign to the French mentality.
The French see Starr’s investigation of the Lewinsky relationship as an autonomous activity independent of the Jones accusation. When asked about the Jones case, the French generally reply that the accusation is itself trivial, that is, that Clinton’s rejected proposal to Jones falls, like Lewinsky’s accepted proposal to Clinton, in the category of normal expressions of sexual appetite. But a more revealing French response is that the obscenity of Clinton’s purported behavior to Jones, which one would not expect from even the most womanizing of Frenchmen, reflects the puritanical conditions of American life that make it impossible for a political leader to satisfy his appetites in a more natural manner. The asperities of American sexual life, particularly our obsession with “sexual harassment,” are blamed on the repression of our bodily needs.
Thus where Americans see the rule of law as protecting market society from the crudities of appetite, the French see appetites as constituting in themselves a naturally regulated exchange system that requires external intervention only in cases of unambiguous violence–had Clinton raped Jones, even the French might find grounds for action. We recognize here the tension between the “Protestant ethic” of the creators of capitalism and the more tolerant ethic of Catholic countries. But this tolerance of the “appetitive” makes the French insensitive to the unnaturally mediated and therefore necessarily regulated nature of human sexual interaction. Legal tension is avoided only by dismissing as puritanical the attempt, essential to a democratic social order, to define the limits of the expression of “natural” desires when they come into conflict with the liberty of their human object. Thus even French feminists fail to face up to the fact that Clinton’s alleged behavior with Jones was less an expression of animal desire than an attempted exercise of le droit du seigneur.
France’s adaptation to market society has been, despite lingering high unemployment, generally quite successful. But the present example reveals that much has survived unexamined from the ancien régime. The “natural law” that regulates French sexuality makes cheerful allowance for feudal modes of interaction. The American insistence on reciprocity in all markets, sexual as well as economic, makes our life less attuned to la différence but more respectful of individuals of either sex. This is the lesson the French, and Clinton supporters in general, should take away from the Lewinsky affair, rather than seeking to explain it away as an artifact of Kenneth Starr’s libidinal frustrations.