PARIS -- Only the French could have an etiquette scandal.
Let Americans get in a lather over peccadillos of state. The French are lamenting the state of propriety. No one in the land of Napoleon is following the code. And it is putting the citoyens of this once luminous empire in a dark mood. They are less concerned about their president’s slamming-door farcical adventures in amour than they are about the blow to their amour-propre. They fret that their image is more Feydeau than Rousseau.
On the Saint-Valentin weekend, as people joined un kiss flash mob at the Louvre, we faced another Gallic paradox, like the one about red wine and foie gras keeping you thin.
“The whole problem with this Hollande scandal is that he is not married,” says Jean-Marie Rouart, the French novelist. “Had he been married, this affair would never have been revealed.”
He observed that, as an “elected monarch,” the president has to maintain appearances.
“In France, having a mistress is not considered cheating,” he says. “We are not a puritanical country. France is Catholic. We accept sin and forgiveness.”
It’s bad enough to hide under a helmet and dismiss your security and go incognito on an Italian scooter to have a tryst in an apartment that is a stone’s throw from the Elysee Palace and has some tenuous connection to the Corsican Mafia. But everyone here except Francois Hollande seems to agree: You do not install one mistress at the Elysee when you have another mistress. That is simply bad form.
Why should the tabloids stick to the rule of the French press to ignore the private lives of presidents if Mr. Hollande breaks the rule of French presidents to lead an “exemplary” public life, which means having a real wife to cheat on?
Many now suspect the 59-year-old Hollande, aka The Living Marshmallow, allowed Mistress No. 1, beautiful 48-year-old Paris Match writer Valerie Trierweiler, to play the role of first concubine to distract her from his affair with Mistress No. 2, gorgeous 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet. Ms. Gayet is a committed Socialist who worked on Mr. Hollande’s campaign, making kittenish support videos and sporting an “I only date Super Heroes” T-shirt.
To assuage Ms. Trierweiler for being dubbed “a concubine” in the press, the Rottweiler — as she’s known for her aggressive moves in person and on Twitter — got Elysee offices, a staff of four and a monthly budget of $27,000.
But that created some mal de mer among the French, even before the White House had to destroy all its invitations with Valerie’s name when she squared off with her rival, went to the hospital with a case of “the blues” and was dumped by Mr. Hollande in a terse press “communique” two weeks before his visit to Washington.
“The concept of the first lady doesn’t exist in France, and even less the first mistress,” sniffed Olivier de Rohan, a vicomte and head of a foundation that protects French art. “The protocol in France is very strict. It is not a question of choice or pleasure. The wife of the president of the republic was always seated as the wife, never paraded as the first lady. I don’t care with whom Hollande sleeps. But the whole thing is totally ridiculous, the head of a great state exhibiting mistresses, one after the other.”
Or as one French journalist murmured, “All this, in the place where de Gaulle was.”
Over good wine and small portions across Paris, there was appalled discussion that Stephen Colbert, who had filleted Mr. Hollande’s shenanigans on his show, was seated to the right of Michelle Obama at the state dinner, in the magic circle with the president where Ms. Trierweiler would have been, had she not been trundled off to the love guillotine.
“In France, it would be extremely rude to do that,” Mr. Rohan said about Mr. Colbert. “The Americans have no protocol.”
Before the dinner, Mr. Colbert joked that if the first lady were just the last person you slept with, America’s would have been Monica Lewinsky in 1998. He later crowed about the significance of his placement, yelling “I’m the first lady of France! Merci!” as he was showered with roses. His project, he said, would be “bringing Jean Valjean to justice.”
The nation that once worshipped Jerry Lewis was flummoxed by this “terrible faux pas,” as it was dubbed. (Even though Mr. Colbert shares a name with a top adviser to Louis XIV, many harbor dark suspicions that he’s Irish.) They wondered how a late-night comic outranked Christine Lagarde, a possible contender to succeed Mr. Hollande. Why were more French luminaries not invited? Why did Mary J. Blige sing for Mr. Hollande “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” a famous Jacques Brel chanson begging a lover not to leave?
Did Michelle, Le Point snarked, think she was providing Mr. Colbert with “fresh material” for another searing sketch?
The French have spent centuries making fun of us for our puritanism, and now they feel the unbearable sting of our mockery, as our press and comedians chortle at a mediocre pol caught up in a melodrama with all the erotic charge of week-old Camembert. (Maybe that’s why the French got so swept up in the ridiculous but glamorous rumor about Barack Obama and Beyonce.)
All those French expressions we siphon because English isn’t nuanced enough — finesse, etiquette, savoir-faire, rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, comme il faut — Mr. Hollande flouted.
In the minds of many here, the French president is a loser because he’s so unrefined he might as well be American.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.