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Are the French really casual about infidelity?

In this May 5, 2012 file photo, French Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande, right, offers a rose to his companion Valerie Trierweiler, in Tulle, southwestern France. The woman considered France's first lady was hospitalized after a report the president is having an affair with an actress.

Bob Edme/AP

French President François Hollande paid his first visit to the bedside of "First Girlfriend" Valérie Trierweiler Thursday evening. His long-time partner had been hospitalized for "nervous fatigue" last week, following tabloid revelations that Hollande was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet.

The French – and certainly their current president – champion privacy above all else in these matters, but their purported tolerance toward extramarital affairs is now under the microscope. As the first lady remains in hospital after "a very strong emotional shock" and sales of the magazine Closer, which exposed the sex scandal, skyrocket, critics are beginning to question just how blasé are the French about infidelity.

Last week, Closer published photos allegedly of Hollande sneaking out on a scooter late at night to meet the actress, who is now suing the publication; her lawyers want 50,000 euros for invasion of privacy. Closer is reprinting the salacious issue, reporting that sales are up by 50 per cent, with website traffic surging by 800 per cent.

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Are the French really above a prurient interest in their politicians' affairs? Maybe not: Thanks to the Internet and fierce media competition, the deferentially discrete French press is Westernizing, wrote American University of Paris professor Matthew Fraser in The Local.

And what of the French woman who doesn't lament her husband's indiscretions? That too has been blown out of the water. Writing in Prospect Magazine, Lucy Wadham expounded on the long literary tradition of making North American women feel inferior to French ones.

"What's being championed here is not the actual French woman but some iconic vision of her, some devotional cipher onto which we can project all our fantasies, a salve for our own failings as women," Wadham writes.

The pioneer of an aspirational genre that "invites us to ape French women" was Mireille Guiliano, author of the bestselling tome French Women Don't Get Fat. Wadham suggests that a substantial part of a French woman's "ineffable charm" lies in her "flexible relationship with the truth." Writes Wadham: "The watchword in this matter, as in most matters relating to the mystique of the French woman, is deny, deny, deny."

Debra Ollivier described "male/female complicity" in her 2009 book What French Women Know: About Love, Sex and Other Matters of the Heart and Mind. She updated the story this Friday, acknowledging on CBC's The Current that while the French remain more tolerant, "It's an old myth perpetuated by literature and film that the French are, you know, jauntily passing off their wives and husbands with a certain c'est la vie, letting them have affairs without any pain and suffering."

Her takeaway for North Americans? It's a myth that "every French person is just casual about infidelity and that it doesn't create big problems and drama. The French are like everyone else. It's very complex ... and you could end up in the hospital very upset if you find out that your partner's cheating on you."

Now if we could just apply the same logic to tales of chocolate-inhaling, wine-guzzling, exercise-dodging French women. Who never get fat.

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