Let us briefly escape these shores and touch down in France. The novelist L. P. Hartley once said about foreign countries, "they do things differently there," and what follows is certainly a worthy illustration.
Perhaps you've heard about this one. The French culture minister - Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of the late President Francois Mitterrand - has repeatedly 'fessed up to having sex with young male prostitutes while traveling as a tourist in Southeast Asia. As he put it in a TV interview last week, "Yes, I had relations with boys."
Mitterrand, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet, has been trying to explain certain passages that appear in his published memoir, entitled The Bad Life. Referring to his sex adventures in Thailand, he wrote: "We could say that such a spectacle is abominable from a certain moral point of view, but it pleased me beyond reason. The profusion of attractive young boys who are immediately available puts me in a state of desire and I do not need to restrain or hide myself."
Asked about this in the TV interview, the culture minister replied: "In no way is it an apology of sex tourism...even if one of the chapters is a journey through that hell, with the fascination that hell can provoke." He was a tad vague about whether his paid partners were actually minors; although he used the French word for "boys," the French often use that word as a general synonym for gay men.
Anyway, you probably see where I'm going with this. Ask yourself how long an American cabinet member would last in office if he had penned that book passage. We bounce good family people from office for not paying full taxes on their nannies.
The memoir was actually published four years ago, and it barely caused a ripple at the time. Mitterrand's political critics have dredged it up now, for two reasons: Not long ago, before he took the job as France's guardian of culture, Mitterrand offered to provide character references to a couple fellas who were accused of raping a 16-year-old girl (he's godfather to one of those fellas); and, more publicly, Mitterrand has voiced an energetic defense of Roman Polanski, who faces extradition for his '77 sex with a 13-year-old girl. To quote Mitterrand, Polanski's arrest was "absolutely dreadful," because he should not be "thrown to the lions for an ancient story."
On these shores, this kind of guy would have been frog-marched out of Washington already. He'd be hunkered down at home, with his shades drawn and the TV trucks camped at his curb. Yet in France, he is a sensation. The latest national poll reports that 67 percent of the citizenry wants Mitterrand to stay on the job; only 20 percent want him to quit. He'd probably reverse those numbers only if he declared his hatred for foie gras.
I happen to like France, based on many excursions there for both work and play (far more often the former than the latter); among other things, the French eat better than us, live longer than us, and have better health care than us. During the '90s, they even got around to prosecuting some French war criminals, finally facing up to their wartime complicity with the Nazi occupiers. (Well, sort of.) But one must ask whether they go too far with their traditional respect for the private lives of politicians.
The French justice minister said of Mitterrand the other day, "In each person's life, there are doubtlessly difficult periods, and shadows." But should all "shadows" be deemed equal? I would question whether it's wise to employ, as the official arbiter of national culture, a person who pronounces himself "pleased beyond reason" by the abundance of young male prostitutes. But maybe I'm just being too American.