Posted on Fri, 2014-02-07 11:42 by David Pountney
We have frequently noted the absence of "falling men" from our opera season, but arriving for a rare weekend at my home in France, I am reminded that we have one right here. The ineffably dull M. Hollande has made his and our lives a lot more exciting by being caught visiting his lover on a moped – not exactly Easy Rider style – the poor chap even wore a helmet – in and out of bed I trust! It is of course a permanent joke that the so-called republican French Presidency is monarchical to a degree which our own genuine Royal Family cannot even dream of, so the issue here is not that he has a mistress – all monarchs are supposed to have those – or even that he has upset the First Lady. The French don’t really recognise the role of First Lady (let alone First Man should it ever come to that!) – saying typically that the role is too much of a burden for her, too restricting for him and more to the point, too expensive for us! No the issue is not one of morals, but of ridicule. Pootling around Paris on a scooter in the middle of the night is not Monarchical.
At this point, one has to think that if M. Hollande is so pumped up by signing all those papers, or sending chaps off to be garrotted in the Cote D’Ivoire, should he not do exactly what he would do if confronted by a problem with the trains or the drains – call in an experienced professional? A grande horizontale of the right class can be paid enough to keep her mouth shut and will bring her own helmets.
But at this point we are confronted with the, in terms of cultural history, disturbing realisation that France has fallen out with "fallen women". In between donning his helmet and his leggings, the boring busybody Hollande has found time to make it illegal to employ a prostitute. Note that it is not the prostitute who is illegal in this case, but the client. Whilst it is evident that is it absurd to punish a prostitute for practising her profession, it is only marginally less absurd to punish the client, as this is yet another case of “government by the worthy” marching in with their high minds in the stratosphere and producing a law that completely misses the target. For in isolation, the contract between the prostitute and the client is entirely harmless. Of course in the real world, there is no such thing as isolation, and it is the environment that surrounds prostitution – the pimping, exploitation, trafficking and violence that is the problem, and a big problem too. But forcing the client, and therefore the prostitute too, to go underground merely makes both parties more than ever vulnerable to blackmail and other nefarious practises, for of one thing we can be sure: prostitution will continue just as it has for thousands of years. The busybodies have just succeeded in making the circumstances worse, not better.
They might have learnt something from looking back at the closure of the “maisons closes” (brothels) after the second war. The French, having sold everything they could think of to the Germans in order to get through the war somehow (would we have done any different?) were particularly harsh after the war on the women who had sold their bodies in the same way others had sold chicken, wine, perfume and fashion. The fact that the intolerant Germans had been particularly enthusiastic patrons of “maisons de tolérance” made it all too easy to close them down, but the woman partly responsible for the passage of the bill, Marthe Richard, took only 4 years to realise she had made a terrible mistake, and returned to the subject with a book “Appel des sexes” arguing for their urgent re-opening because, evidently, the girls were in general safer and better looked after in them than on the street. Perhaps she might have been influenced by Arthur Koestler’s autobiography, “Arrow in the blue”, which has a whole chapter devoted to the brothels of Paris, which he ascribes to “the un-neurotic attitude of the French to sex which is the result of the wisdom and the maturity of an old civilisation which has achieved an unique synthesis between Mediterranean hedonism and Nordic, urban diligence... the off-spring of this marriage between Eros and Logos is tolerance.”
This marriage, like M. Hollande’s ménage, would seem to be on the rocks, and the fact that he spent his spare time between the readings of this bill on his little scooter should make us alert to its inherent class snobbery. Hollande may be a very dull man, but being Président, even a two-wheeler, can hardly fail to impart a tiny tinge of excitement to him, and thus increase his chances with actresses on the look-out for a leg up, if not a leg over. But spare a thought for all the unhappy men (and women) who don’t have much glamour, power, or perhaps any attractions at all to help them along. Are we really to punish these people for being prepared to pay for the brief gratification which they may crave in their lonely bedsits? What would M. Hollande rather they do – go out and shoot themselves?
Today, it is rather the countries of “Nordic diligence” that have legalised brothels, almost as an adjunct to social security, though one regrets that these antiseptic municipal edifices should have replaced the more fantastically extravagant French variety. As our own Monarch, Edward VII could have testified, the French had a real talent for brothels which the urban councils of Hamburg or Dusseldorf are unlikely to emulate. One of these famous Parisian establishments is now a restaurant, the Delaville, so you can drink in that bygone atmosphere along with your steak frites, and leave your helmet at the cloakroom. If you even whisper to the waiter that you would like a “chamber séparé” however, “les flics” (the fuzz) will be waiting for you. All of this goes to show that the subject of fallen women still has the power to open up a rich vein of hypocrisy which continues to flow and flow!