French Uninterested in Private Lives Except When They Are

For all the French public’s assertions that President Francois Hollande has the right to a private life, it hasn’t given up its prurient curiosity.

According to an Ifop poll, 77 percent say that President Francois Hollande’s reported affair with an actress is a personal matter. Still, the story has dominated media coverage since it broke Jan. 10. It was the opening question yesterday at Hollande’s semi-annual press conference.

“The French are schizophrenic on the subject of the privacy of politicians,” said Arthur Goldhammer, co-chairman of the French Study Group at Harvard University’s Center for European Studies. “The French, who profess to have no interest in the private lives of politicians, can talk about nothing else whenever a scandal hits the press -- like people everywhere.”

If Hollande thought he could keep his personal life personal, he’d have forgotten the lessons of the past decade. Social media, the growth of aggressive news websites, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to make his private life public, disclosures over former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lifestyle, and the evolving status of France’s “first ladies” have all changed the landscape since President Francois Mitterrand was able to keep his second family and a teenage daughter secret.

Hollande, 59, said yesterday it was not the place to discuss his private life. He’d been asked about a photo spread in Closer magazine, purportedly showing him wearing a helmet as he arrived on a scooter at an apartment around the corner from his office for a liaison with actress Julie Gayet. Gayet, 41, has yet to comment on the matter.

Washington Trip

He said he would address the issue of whether his companion, the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, was still France’s first lady before a Feb. 11 visit to Washington. Trierweiler was hospitalized Jan. 10, the day Closer published its pictures. Hollande would only say that she was “resting.”

While France doesn’t have an official status for “First Lady,” Trierweiler, 48, has an office and staff at the presidential Elysee palace. She was due to accompany Hollande to Washington.

That breaks with the wives of previous presidents who took a low profile, or like Danielle Mitterrand who carried on with her activist causes but away from the Elysee palace.

Before the press conference was hijacked, it had been billed as the Socialist president announcement of his shift toward cutting taxes and regulations to encourage hiring. While most questions in the 2 1/2-hour conference did focus on economic matters, inquiries about his private life kept coming up. He avoided some and addressed others; regarding the ride on a scooter, he said his security was always assured.

Conference Crowd

The press conference was attended by 587 reporters, of whom 207 represented foreign publication. His previous press conference May 16 attracted 410, including 160 from outside France.

“To judge by how quickly the magazine that broke the story flew off the shelves, the level of public interest is high,” said Jim Shields, head of the French studies at Aston University in Birmingham, England. “That makes the unanimous defense of privacy that we’re hearing sound rather hollow.”

A cartoon in today’s satirical weekly Canard Enchaine captured the media’s attitude. A female newspaper editor says to a photographer that “we are all for the respect of private life, but now that it’s public, we need a photo of Trierweiler leaving the clinic.”

Image ‘Disaster’

The reaction of opposition politicians reflected the schizophrenia. Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, said Jan. 12 on France 5 television that the affair was “a disaster for the image of France and for the image of the presidency.” Marine Le Pen, head of the anti-European Union National Front, refused to comment, saying Jan. 13 on RTL Radio that she respects privacy “there are no exceptions to principles even for people you don’t like.”

The number of posts on Twitter mentioning Hollande this week were running at about 50,000 a day, with a spike yesterday of 125,000, up from 10,000 a day before the Closer story. Trierweiler, who barely had any tweets mentioning her before, has had 20,000 on some days.

A search for “Hollande Gayet” on Google’s French language pages produces 70 million results. Closer expects sales of 600,000, about double the weekly magazine’s average of 330,000.

By contrast, the existence of Mitterrand’s second family wasn’t revealed until his 1996 funeral. Former President Jacques Chirac’s nocturnal adventures, although widely known, were rarely ever reported.

Private Lives

Even the Ifop poll that showed three quarters regard Hollande’s private life as private shows an erosion of tolerance. In October 2007, 89 percent said the same thing about Sarkozy’s admission that his second marriage was in trouble.

Sarkozy kept the public informed of his breakup with Cecilia and his subsequent courtship and marriage to singer-model Carla Bruni through interviews, press conferences, and authorized photo-shoots.

“Hollande was wise not to get into details, because he avoided Sarkozy’s disastrous lines about Carla,” said Laurent Dubois, a professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

Hollande has never married, even though he has four children with Segolene Royal, the Socialist Party’s losing candidate in the 2007 elections.

“Sarkozy saw himself as part of the celebrity culture, where people live their sex lives as they please,” Harvard’s Goldhammer said. “Hollande is rather a product of the 1960’s counterculture: he and Segolene had children without marrying, signaling indifference to the ‘bourgeois’ institution of marriage.”

Less Judgmental

While the French may be fascinated with the personal lives of their leaders, they are less judgmental than in English speaking countries, said Gilles Savary, a member of parliament from Bordeaux.

“They are curious, but not scandalized,” Savary said. “In France, unlike America, money scandals are more serious than sex scandals.”

When French budget minister Jerome Cahuzac admitted last April he had a Swiss bank account, he was thrown out of government and parliament, and Hollande forced all his ministers to declare their assets.

“When Francois Mitterrand was president the entire media establishment knew everything about his sexual escapades and conquests, but they chose to say nothing about it,” said Matthew Fraser, a lecturer on media at Paris-based Sciences-Po university. “Those days are over.”

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