Valerie Trierweiler.

Valerie Trierweiler. Photo: Reuters

The old stereotype is that puritanical American voters obsess about their leaders' sex lives while the French can't be bothered. Take, for instance, the contrast between Bill Clinton, whose extramarital affair dominated American politics for years, and Francois Mitterrand, who was somehow able to spend most of the nights of his presidency staying with a second family without the press, public or political opposition taking notice. (Both ''widows'' attended his funeral.)

But for a country that supposedly doesn't care about politicians' sex lives, we seem to hear an awful lot about French politicians' sex lives. A policy address by deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande this week was overshadowed by tabloid reports that he has been having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. First lady Valerie Trierweiler has been hospitalised for unclear reasons.

Hollande was supposed to be Monsieur Normal, an appealingly bland return to sanity after the tabloid distractions of the Nicolas Sarkozy years. But his messy personal life has been on display almost from the beginning, with his partner, Trierweiler, carrying on a public feud with Hollande's ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal.

French president Fran?ois Hollande.

French president Francois Hollande. Photo: AFP

It's true 77 per cent of French voters say the affair should be a personal matter and 84 per cent say it won't change their (negative) opinion of Hollande. I don't buy this. Gossip magazine Closer sold out the issue featuring photos of Hollande pulling up to Gayet's apartment. The first question at this week's press conference was whether Trierweiler is still first lady. (Hollande ducked it.) It's true the mainstream media in France was slow to jump on this until Closer forced the issue, but the blogosphere has been buzzing for almost a year.

Most US voters say greater scrutiny rather than falling morals is the reason there are more political sex scandals today. The French may never have been as blase about political sex as they like to pretend, but a number of factors including the internet and the British and US tabloid media's insatiable hunger for French sex scandals are making it harder for mainstream French media to play down these stories or for French citizens to act like they're not interested.

Slate

Julie Gayet.

Julie Gayet. Photo: AFP

Joshua Keating is a Slate staff writer.