The French have long had a reputation abroad for being unfaithful to their partners. It is an image that has been given credibility thanks to the penchant of France’s political class, most notably the country’s recent presidents, for dabbling in extramarital affairs. For many looking on from abroad infidelity was considered as much a part of French culture as croissants and haute-couture.
It was this reputation that filled Noel Biderman, the Canadian founder of the global extramarital affairs website Ashley Madison, with trepidation when he launched the company in France in October last year.
Biderman was concerned about whether the site would really take off in a country already notorious for doing exactly what his business aims to help people do – cheat on their partners.
To make matters worse France was in the midst of a divisive row over marriage.
But four months down the line Biderman’s anxiety has eased off.
“It’s been remarkable. I was hesitant to go to France, because I really did not want to get it wrong,” he said.
“But we had 80,000 people signing up in the first month and we expect to have over 250,000 by Valentine's Day (February 14th). It shows infidelity is alive and well in France,” he told The Local from his hotel room in New York.
That statement appears to be backed up by the success of France’s other extra-marital affairs site Gleeden, which was founded in 2009 and has garnered a reported 1.4 million subscribers.
French media “rejects” advertising campaign
Ashley Madison’s entry in the French market has not been without its ups and downs. Biderman’s initial fears about “getting it wrong in France” appeared to have been realized when media sites reportedly turned their back on the company’s provocative advertising campaign.
Ashley Madison is renowned for its ballsy adverts (many of which are daubed around the Paris Metro) but it seemed their publicity campaign to mark the launch in France was a step too far.
The advert featured images of France’s most recent presidents with their faces covered in lipstick with the question “What do they all have in common?” The tagline “They should have all called Ashley Madison” provided the answer, suggesting the four men could have kept their reported affairs secret if only they had signed up to the website.
Biderman, who has dubbed himself France's "new foreign affairs minister", insisted it was a bit of fun and his communications officer in Paris said they would “take responsibility” if any of France’s previous heads of states decided to launch legal action.
But the advert achieved its aim, with numerous headlines and column inches devoted to the arrival of Ashley Madison. The subscribers soon rolled in.
But despite the success Biderman has doubts over the reputation that the French are the world’s greatest adulterers.
“There’s some mythology here. I don’t think they are more or less unfaithful than anywhere else,” Biderman said.
Perhaps then it is not that the French have more affairs than, say, Americans, it is just that they keep getting caught. Are they more carefree or even more careless than in countries?
“The French are like people everywhere in that they don’t want their partner to discover the fact they are having an affair. They try to keep their affairs secret the way the Americans or British do,” Biderman says.
The French do however differ in some regards when it comes to cheating on their partners, in particular when it comes to getting caught.
Their reaction to finding out their partner has cheated on them is different, Biderman said. “They understand this is just a part of a human condition. If they are found out then it is not necessarily cataclysmic, it doesn't have to be the end of a relationship.
“That does not mean they want to rub their partners' faces in it, they don’t try and run their politicians out of office because of it."
Older French women remain sexually active
The thousands of female subscribers who have signed up to Ashley Madison also point to a cultural difference between France and the rest of the world, Biderman has noticed.
“One of the big differences is that on the US site, the average age of female subscribers is 33 and in Britain I think it is 34 but in France the average age of women who have signed up is 41, so quite a bit older.
“There seems to be an overcoming of biology with French women – those in their forties still feel very sexual and are willing to explore it and I don’t think that exists in US culture.
“At that age women see themselves as mums, they think 'well I have been sexually active, I can take it or leave it now’. Not only are women more sexually active in France than other countries they are much more active when it comes to having an affair.”