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Contemplating Affairs in France

DURING a misty, cold week roaming around glorious Paris, I sit and stir a cup of cafe au lait at the restaurant Le Verdois. Poor, sad Mme. Henrietta Caillaux, I think to myself, stirring slowly, a woman dislodged from reason by the male values of France's belle epoque.

Madame Caillaux became the infamous wife of Joseph Caillaux, a cabinet minister and rising political star in Paris of 1914. She threw France into turmoil on the eve of World War I when, dressed in fur, she visited the office of Gaston Calmette, the editor of Le Figaro.

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Calmly pulling a small Browning automatic from a muff, she fired six deadly shots into him.

Calmette's newspaper had been attacking the character of Madame Caillaux's husband and had published some of his private correspondence, which revealed the couple's somewhat tawdry past affairs.

Enraged at the public besmirching of their honor - the core value of French culture then - she engaged in what she thought was an impassioned restoration of honor, and hang the consequences.

Her trial began on July 20, 1914, two weeks before Europe went to war. Regardless of the impending horror, all of France was spellbound by the courtroom drama as reported lavishly in every Paris newspaper for eight days.

Author Edward Berenson tells this fascinating story of French masculine/ feminine values in his brilliant new book, "The Trial of Madame Caillaux," published by University of California Press.

Just before going to Paris the book made good reading for two reasons: First, it reveals the historical origins of the web of masculine and feminine values that ensnared Madame Caillaux. And second, there apparently has been a postmodern update when it comes to honor in France.

French newspapers and magazines recently reported that the married anchorman of France's most-watched TV news show had allegedly had an affair with an anchorwoman at the same TV station. But instead of gunshots fired by a wife this time, there was only a lawsuit filed by the anchorman against the magazine that broke the story.

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What hasn't changed in France is that, for society at large, extramarital affairs are still acceptable, but any discussion of the details in print is without honor. Probably the use of the word "extramarital" is rather quaint to some people in France.

Pondering the meaning of all this at a table at Le Verdois, I suggest the need for public courage in disclosing that affairs, despite endorsement by movies and fiction, are not purveyors of human happiness beyond the momentary. The loudness of asserting otherwise in the face of broken lives and hearts in itself becomes sanctimonious, if not downright foolish.

Monogamy as a cultural value, however tattered its reputation in France or the United States, has the virtue of being a private community, complete, and beautiful for the grace of the loyalty involved. It is also clarifies the depth of love for better or worse.

What Madame Caillaux never knew was her own worth independent of a false credo.

At her trial, according to Berenson, "[She] presented her honor as endangered not because she behaved immorally but because [editor] Calmette had threatened to make that immorality public. Honor was the product not of her own actions but of the way others construed them."

The French look upon US reaction to affairs - the alleged liaison between Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers, for instance - with bemusement. They can't understand why Americans demand to know the character of their leaders while the French want the leader simply to lead. The difference may be as inexplicable as the light in Paris.

Or perhaps it is a French male characteristic. "When I was a young man, I vowed never to marry until I found the ideal woman," a former French foreign minister said. "Well, I found her - but alas, she was waiting for the perfect man."

If you're wondering whether Madame Caillaux was acquitted or condemned at her trial, the only honorable response for me is to suggest that you read the book.

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