WASHINGTON — In France, where presidential mistresses raise few eyebrows, the latest US sex scandal has drawn sniggers about America's "puritanical" impulses. In Africa, where a leader's womanizing is often taken as a sign of virility and power, few understand it. In Japan, where politicians' "below-the-belly-button" matters are usually considered private, it has brought bewilderment.
To be sure, most foreign observers would agree the charges of adultery and obstruction of justice facing Clinton are serious because they risk destabilizing the domestic political life and foreign policy of the world's only superpower.
But reactions to the allegations themselves are extraordinarily mixed. Ethical and religious mores, gender relations, and the level of democracy and press freedom all determine where each country draws the line between public and private life - a line that shifts over time.
"Americans haven't always investigated presidents' private lives in this way," notes Suzanne Garment, author of "Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics." In the 1960s, the feminist movement, along with a longstanding concern from the religious right about politicians' sexual mores, fueled a trend toward more intense scrutiny of the private lives of elected officials. In the 1970s, Watergate spurred the development of laws and institutions that exposed much more about politicians' personal affairs. "We've had a huge increase in scandals since Watergate," Ms. Garment says.
In countries that share a strong cultural heritage with the United States, such as Britain and Canada, the turmoil in Washington is no mystery. Indeed, some British observers have wondered why the president's alleged indiscretions haven't provoked more attention.
"For all its power, the American press up to now has been very reluctant to open this can of worms when it involves the presidency," says BBC Washington correspondent Bridget Kendall.
But even in places such as France and Latin America ,where tolerance for leaders' sexual affairs is greater, the Clinton scandal is generating respect for the way Americans hold their president to high standards of truth.
In France, a cloak of silence
The overwhelming French reaction to the Clinton affair has been to try not to laugh. In France, a politician's private life is universally respected as sacrosanct, as expressed recently by Alain Genestar, a prominent political commentator, in the weekly Le Journal de Dimanche:
"Every politician is free to do whatever he or she wants to do in his or her bed with whomever he or she wants, on the sole condition that the turbulence of an active private life has no impact on public life. Full stop."
The clearest illustration of this principle was the cloak of silence thrown over the late President Franois Mitterrand's double life. It was no secret to anybody in politics that Mitterrand had an illegitimate daughter, Mazarine. Indeed, she sometimes accompanied him on official business. But neither she, nor Mitterrand's many mistresses, were ever mentioned in the press. Mazarine and her mother stood beside Mitterrand's widow at the former president's funeral. The lineup shocked nobody.
But the scandal surrounding Clinton has led to some soul-searching in Paris, and to some surprising self-criticism. While mocking the "puritanism" of American morality, French analysts also have voiced a certain respect for America's reverence for the truth.
"The problems that afflict certain [US] politicians from time to time, and that we are too quick to attribute to incorrigible puritanism, arise in fact from a demand for transparency that lies at the heart of democratic principles," wrote Gerard Dupuy, a commentator with the leftist daily Liberation.
Mr. Genestar sounded a similar note. "The Americans, unlike the French, do not tolerate untruth in their head of state. Should we really make fun of them for that?"
Japan: Don't cheat on the cheap
"America's the anomaly," sighs John Neuffer, a Montana-bred political analyst a Japanese corporate-funded think tank. "The Japanese, [other] Asians, the French have no problem with politicians mixing hanky-panky with policy, as long as they keep it compartmentalized."
The Japanese seem almost blas about their politicians straying from the marital straight and narrow. Last October a member of parliament publicly questioned Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto about his relationship with a woman suspected of being a Chinese spy, eliciting an acknowledgment from Mr. Hashimoto that he had known the woman in the 1980s. The issue died.
The sex scandal gripping Washington has provoked more curiosity than concern from most Japanese. The most intriguing feature is the role of Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, because it seems odd here that a country should employ a full-time investigator to probe the activities of a sitting president.
If allegations similar to those now facing Clinton were leveled here, says political historian Takashi Mikuriya, impeachment would not be an option. The best the Japanese parliament could do would be to question the prime minister, says Professor Mikuriya, who teaches at Tokyo Metropolitan University.
One prime minister's sex life has, however, drawn public scrutiny. Sosuke Uno was forced to resign six weeks after he took office in 1989 when revelations surfaced about a mistress and his attempts to quiet her with a payoff that many people felt was miserly and ungentlemanly.
Mr. Neuffer notes that the liaison itself was not the problem - many men of Mr. Uno's generation have mistresses, and the society is untroubled by the practice. "He got run out of office because ... he was cheap and dishonorable," Neuffer says.
"Even now, some [male politicians] are so traditionally minded that having an affair is a normal part of their lives," says Sumie Kakemizu, a legislator in the Western city of Kobe.
"Many assemblymen around me have no particular reaction other than, 'Wow, it's so American' " to investigate the president.
Germany's Hillu and Gerhard
Eight months before federal elections here, Germans shaking their heads over Clinton's latest scandal are wondering how much longer they will be able to maintain their own tradition of keeping politicians' private lives private.
"The longer the Clinton story goes on," predicts Jochen Thies, a commentator for Deutschlandradio Berlin, "the greater the chance that women who have been involved with men running for office will come forward and speak out" during the coming German campaign.
Sexual peccadilloes are hardly unknown among German politicians, but journalists tend to look the other way - if indeed they get close enough to see anything at all. The media tend to be less adversarial than their American counterparts have been since Watergate.
The breakup of the marriage of Gerhard and Hiltrud Schrder in March 1996 probably represents the high-water mark of politicians' private lives going public. Pollsters identify Mr. Schrder, the minister-president of the state of Lower Saxony, as the most popular politician in Germany. He longs to end what will be 16 years of conservative government by toppling Chancellor Helmut Kohl in September's election.
The Schrders were a mediagenic, American-style power couple (her nickname, "Hillu," even sounds like Hillary). Mrs. Schrder had political ideas of her own. They made a vivid contrast to the stolid Mr. Kohl and his all-but-invisible wife, Hannelore. But when Gerhard Schrder took up with a magazine reporter nearly 20 years his junior, whom he married last year after his divorce became final, he discovered what a liability an ex-wife can be. Hillu gave interviews, wrote memoirs, and attacked him for cheap populism when he began talking "tough on crime."
Observers say the public couldn't care less what politicians do sexually in their spare time.
Last June, Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov resign after the release of a video showing him cavorting with several women in a sauna. But pundits agree that Mr. Kovalyov was compromised not by the erotic implications, but because he was filmed as a guest at a notorious mobster's bathhouse.