I am French but I am not a libertine…
It is sometimes said that the French invented libertinage. But have they really? The subtle, but powerful effects of cultural stereotypes and prejudices of people based on their race, ethnicity, nationality or religion are being now very appropriately recognised and highlighted in our society. In spite of this, such stereotypes remain a powerful source of phantasm. And yes, most people believe that not only we French have invented libertinage, but also that all of French society indulges in such a practice. Nothing could be further from the truth. So imagine my surprise when, in London and after a pint or two down the pub, I keep being asked about extra-marital affairs and managing to separate sex and love. What is going on? I am just a wife, mother and colleague who happen to have crossed the Channel to keep the family together. But nobody wants to hear it. Of course not: it is much funnier to imagine that all French women are sex goddesses turning a blind eye on their husbands’ indiscretions. It used to make me laugh. Now I am not so sure. I just nod and smile. I know that some battles can’t be won.
The fact that French society is a lot more conservative than people might think is essentially irrelevant, because it is all about perceptions. If you don’t believe me, just have a look at the recent scandal caused the ads of an extramarital dating website in France. They ended up being withdrawn in most cities. The Catholic Family Association even filed a legal complaint against the site’s publisher in a Paris superior court. The Catholic group argued that the ad was immoral and a reckless breach of an article in the civil code. So much for thinking that France was the land of discreet affairs, right?
It is true that libertinage is a key element of culture and art in the French ancien régime. Libertinage is a defining feature of the period, almost the dominating mode of thinking at the time. On the one hand it is a common subject of novels, plays, memoirs, dialogues, poetry and songs; on the other, it is characterised by an aspiration to singularity, and it opposes religion, morals and political correctness. Because libertinage is mostly about the practice and expression of sexual pleasure (as opposed to romantic love), libertinage is an affront to conventional behaviour. That said, being a libertine is also being a freethinker. There are various representations of the libertine in the novel and the theatre, starting with Molière’s anti-hero Don Juan, who displays many of the libertine’s key characteristics. The most famous of all libertine texts is probably Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The apparent permanence of libertinage in French literature of this period makes it look like libertinage was a precisely defined concept, and also an obligatory step on the path to self-discovery and meaningful rebellion. But libertinage is in fact a fluid concept, encompassing literature, philosophy, politics, art and even morals. Erotic and intellectual, spontaneous and sometimes rehearsed, libertinage is a protean and contradictory practice. Still today, libertinage is often an all-embracing concept used to intellectualise deviant behaviour or practices, as was the case during the DSK trials (to cut a long story short, DSK said that he was a libertine to justify his tawdry behaviour).
It should however be kept in mind that the libertine’s novels depiction of aristocratic decadence might have helped to pave the way for a rejection of feudal privileges under the Revolution. In short, the French rejected libertinage and tried to destroy the aristocracy because of it (amongst other reasons of course). At the time of the Revolution, the French elites were perceived to be decadent and libertinage was yet another reason why they were inadequate. That’s yet another French paradox: we are supposed to be open-minded about libertinage but tried to get rid of its adepts.
And for the record, Don Juan was Spanish.