Poor Monica Lewinsky. I don’t mean to drag her into this, really. She has long paid a price for being foolish in the ways of the young, for being vulnerable to the attractions of a much older man who was not only, in her eyes, immensely attractive, but happened also to be president of the United States.
However… Ms. Lewinsky cannot help but forever be associated with a sea change in America’s political culture. Bill Clinton was hardly the first president to engage in a dalliance outside of his marriage. But never before in American history had a dalliance been so relentlessly chronicled; never before in American history had the American people been so completely privy to what previously was considered private. Bill Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky amounted to a turning point: the office of the American presidency was so thoroughly debased, so completely reduced, it was impossible subsequently to restore it to what it was previously.
It was presumed until recently that the French were immune to this sort of scandal. In fact, they were so sophisticated, so cosmopolitan, that when they found out that their longest serving president ever (1981-1995), Francois Mitterand, had long had a mistress, with whom by the way he had a daughter they did not bat an eye.
That was then. Whatever the French were, they are no longer. In fact, the French people are rather like people in other Western democracies: they are willing no longer to tolerate obviously poor behavior by people in positions of power and authority. Ironically, recently, the French have been sorely tested, beset by a string of men in high places, all behaving badly.
First of the three most egregious examples was Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, as well as presumed future candidate for French president, who in 2011 faced changes of sexually assaulting a hotel worker in New York City. Second was the incumbent president, Francois Hollande, who, in spite of his having the worst poll ratings of any president in the history of the Fifth Republic, or maybe because of them, saw fit earlier this year to leave his partner in the middle of the night, on a motor scooter no less, for an assignation with his secret lover, a young French actress. Finally, just this week was the particularly mortifying sight of Hollande’s immediate predecessor, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, being hauled into police custody on charges of corruption and influence-peddling. It’s all been a bit much – more even than the worldly French are willing to suck up.
France has had rather a hard time of it in recent years, or, at least, the French have been beleaguered by a sense of decline, heightened by their badly diminished status as a world power, by a seriously sluggish economy, and by a malaise that has had a serious side effect: it has increased the appeal of the party of the far right, the Front National. Ironically, the FN is led by a women, Martine Le Pen, who might just decide herself to run for president in 2017.
I like the idea of France having a woman president. Why not? Several of the men who would constitute the opposition have not exactly distinguished themselves. But this woman? At this time? No! Le Pen is not a centrist; she is perilously close to being extremist. She is in any case an ultra-nationalist, a would-be candidate for the nation’s highest office who probably would tap into some of France’s least attractive, xenophobic impulses. It’s a timely if grim reminder of how in this day and age when a leader of national consequence behaves badly, he puts at risk not only himself, but his people.