24/01/2014 05:59 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 05:59 GMT

French Affairs Really Are Different

Francois Hollande's sexual adventures are a private matter, with no bearing on his role as President - French polls confirm. French privacy laws support this idea - in contrast with Anglo-Saxon punitive reactions to affairs.

Within Europe, the French have possibly the most permissive views on affairs and casual flings, which are taken for granted as something that happen throughout life, if you are lucky. Two-thirds of Frenchmen and half of French women believe that sexual attraction inevitably leads to intimacy; two-thirds of men and one-third of women agree that sex and love are two separate things; two-fifths of the French think love does not require complete sexual fidelity; and one-quarter even believe that transitory infidelities can strengthen marital love. At any one time, one-quarter of men and women in France are enjoying casual flings and affairs, young and old alike.

The vast majority of affairs in continental countries are what I call playfairs - short but sweet diversions from day-to-day realities and obligations. They do not lead to a change of spouse. Indeed the French have developed the affair into an art form, with conventions on romantic dinners, elegant lunches, gifts, weekend trips to exotic and glamorous places like Venice or Marrakesh. As one Frenchman noted, offering an exciting weekend away in an attractive destination always secured a seduction.

Women in Puritan Anglo-Saxon cultures often regard such an invitation as sexual harassment rather than a compliment - especially if it comes from their boss. Frenchwomen point out that you can always say No to any invitation, politely and regretfully, to avoid hurting the man's ego. So who is the victim?

Frenchwomen positively welcome compliments on their appearance (as do men), whereas women in Britain and America may treat such personal comments as inappropriate. But why else do we invest in looking good, if not to attract admirers? Most continental Europeans want people to notice their efforts and style.

Affairs get a negative press in Anglo-Saxon countries, where they are discussed in terms of infidelity, adultery, cheating, dishonesty, and betrayal. Four-fifths of people in Britain condemn affairs as always wrong - even though two-thirds do not regard sex as a central part of marriage. People over-react to discovery of sexual infidelities, leading to high divorce rates and serial monogamy across life - with all the family and financial disruption that entails.

In the southern European view, marriage is a more flexible but permanent relationship - it is essentially about children, property and inheritance, so marriage is for life. There is no assumption that spouses must fulfil all of each other's needs, all of the time. Where necessary both spouses find friends and lovers outside the marriage. Divorce is frowned on, and much less common.

Tolerance of affairs is linked to a greater emphasis on sexuality and seduction as central to life's pleasures in France. The art of seduction is practiced by everyone, from Presidents courting votes to salespeople seeking customers. It is considered an essential skill for a civilised person.

The French have many terms for affairs: aventures, petites aventures and vagabondage. These adventures outside marriage may be accepted or ignored, routine or exceptional, but are normally conducted with discretion, with consideration for the dignity of the spouse who must never be embarrassed in any way. In the hedonistic or libertine perspective, affairs should be tolerated, with everyone turning a blind eye to them, so long as they are properly discreet. And of course there is equal opportunity for both spouses to have their flings. It is the Carnival spirit of occasional delicious transgression and excess followed by a return to normality.

Catherine Hakim's book The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power is published by Gibson Square.