11 OCTOBER 2003, Page 68

French lessons


T've had some further thoughts as to the 'reasons why a mistress enjoys more influence over a French politician than, say, over an Englishman, a question posed to me by the historian Alistair Home two weeks ago.

For starters, men in France consider a mistress to be a normal part of a male's panoply, whereas in England terms like 'clean living' and 'decent' apply primarily to sexual behaviour. In France, people have always treated sexual conduct as being outside the scope of moral judgment; not so in puritanical Albion. In France, the lighter character of the men leads them to reflect aloud on their projects while aiming to be the master. In other words, he takes his slave into his confidence. Whether the little woman is of the same opinion does not matter. He has taken her into his confidence. They are sharing a secret. (Can you picture John Major taking the self-publicist Edwina Currie into his confidence? It would have been on the front page of the Daily Mail the next morning.) Whether the mistress loves the Frenchman is immaterial, She needs him, and he in turn communicates his ideas to her. C'est tout!

The Frenchman informs his mistress of his power, and discusses it with her. Can't you see that rather insignificant little man, Paul Reynaud, the last French prime minister before the fall of France in 1940, bragging to La Comtesse de la Porte how he will stop the Hun (with a little help from 'mon cher ami, Winston')? I sure can. Or Francois Mitterrand, more cerebral, reflecting with his various women friends about matters most frivolous as well as very important?

De Gaulle was among the very few French politicians without a mistress, and it showed. My favourite was Georges Pompidou, a gent as well as a very able man, and someone very discreet. Pompidou loved good food and wines, so he must have adored women. Once, at Paul-Louis Weiller's house, newly married to the prettiest young girl in Paris, Pompidou stepped aside so my wife and I could pass in front of him to the dinner table. 'Apres vous, monsieur le Premier Ministre,' said I. 'Non, la jeunesse d'abord,' exclaimed the gallant Georges.

As I recently wrote in these pages, French women have frivolous habits, a taste for luxury, and a host of little passions, all traits which make them perfect mistresses. The exaggerated coquetry can never be reconciled with true love — that is the wife's domain. The mistress, in fact, is more associated with the thoughts of the man, than the cinq a sem quickies she is usually associated with by the popular press.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Mistresses in France do not go public, no matter what price is dangled before them, nor the threats, as in the case of Claude Grudet, my good friend, who is also known as Madame Claude. She refused to dish the dirt on anyone and ended up in jail, ruined, but still she did not spill a single bean.

Is a mistress a necessary part of a politician's stature? Of course it is, or at least it used to be. Mistresses have managed to help their men far more than they've hurt them, but I haven't enough space here to give historical examples. All I know is that I wouldn't mind having Georgina Rylance for a mistress. Alas, I asked her and she turned me down. And for good reasons, too. She is one of our most talented actresses, having trained at Lamda, and with an Oxford degree to boot. She's been in films, on television, and in the theatre, with her last role being in the remake of Spartacus.

I took her to dinner with five men following the Speccie party last July, and a well-known young historian turned into a gibbering wreck when she got up and he saw the legs that went with the face. Why has she refused my offer? Easy. She loves acting, but not in the bed. Worse, her father is a judge who might not take kindly to the fact that an old lecher like yours truly has taken his little girl as a mistress. So Georgina and I are just friends, as horrible a term as there is in the English language. But don't count me out yet. In Paris I made a few contacts, and, if things work out, I expect to continue my wellresearched reports about why French mistresses are the tops.