Today I am going to write about something taking place in France. Have I lost you already? I only ask because I know that many Americans are either thoroughly apathique or completely hostile when it comes to our French collègues. I’ve heard the usual complaints: they live in a nanny state, they don’t believe in working, they hate Américains, they are complete cowards in all their military campagnes, and they have a preference for the kind of cheese that looks like a science experiment gone wrong.
Perhaps the thought of reading an entire article about France fills you with disgust. Perhaps you are still unwilling to give the French credit for “freedom fries” more than a decade after the fact. (There is actually an ongoing dispute about whether deep fried potato strips originated in France or modern day Belgium.) Perhaps you think that the term “Francophile” is synonymous with “socialist”.
Allow me to reassure you by insisting that this is not really a French story at all: it is an age old tale about a politician caught in a sex scandal, full of the kind of details that are sure to reinforce your cynicism, while at the same time making you feel superior to other members of the human race. Are you interested now? I hope so, because that is about the best sales pitch I can give.
François Hollande is the star of our show today. He was elected as the President of France back in 2012, defeating the more conservative incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy. Hollande was the first candidate from the Socialist Party to win the top job since François Mitterand back in the 1980s. Unfortunately, Monsieur Hollande’s policies – which include a 75% tax rate on any yearly income over €1 million – have not been able to reverse the country’s financial downslide, and his poll numbers have been positively awful, hitting a low of 15% approval back in November.
If Hollande were an American president, this may have been the time to order a military action, a la the movie Wag the Dog. But since we are talking about France, the formula has to be switched up a bit: wars are not as likely to rally public support. While the plot of Wag the Dog involved a president attempting to cover up his sexual deviance with a fictitious war, Hollande seems to be going in the other direction.
Last week, the French tabloid Closer (the same one that published topless photos of Britain’s Princess Kate back in 2012) ran a story reporting on Hollande’s alleged affair with the French actress Julie Gayet, including photos of the president sneaking in and out of the couple’s Paris love nest disguised in a motorcycle helmet. Sacré bleu! It appears that the president has been embracing that oldest of French diversions: sleeping around.
A lot of the press coverage of this incident has focused on whether or not the revelation of Hollande’s philandering marks a turning point in the way that France views the private lives of its leaders. As this article by the French news organization FRANCE 24 explains, “Exposing leaders’ infidelities and trawling through their private lives may be commonplace in the United States and Britain, but in France such stories have largely remained a no-go area for the media, even the tabloids.” Hmm…sounds a lot like the American press in the JFK era.
How hesitant is the French media to delve into politicians’ personal lives? At the bottom of the FRANCE 24 story I mentioned in the previous paragraph, an italicized statement reads, “FRANCE 24 has decided not to publish either the name of the actress or the name of the publication that reported the affair allegations out of respect for the privacy of those involved.”
The problem for Mr. Hollande is that France does not have anything akin to the Great Firewall of China. If an article in Le Monde leaves a reader wanting to know more, they can simply go to their Internet search engine and find all the information they are looking for in mere seconds. This has led some to conclude that suing publications such as Closer to halt the publication of articles that violate privacy has a very limited value. Despite many British publications declining to publish naked pictures of Prince Harry acquired by the U.S. website TMZ, the images have enjoyed a long and happy life online. The rules of the game have clearly changed, and regardless of whether or not the French people approve of their president’s behavior, he can expect that it will be a subject of worldwide discussion for some time to come.
One other aspect of the media coverage that I have found to be particularly interesting is the usage of the terms “affair” and “cheating” to describe Hollande’s actions. Such language suggests that in spending “quality time” with Ms. Gayet, the president was breaking a sacred commitment. Yet, the fact of the matter is that President Hollande does not have a wife – only a live-in girlfriend named Valérie Trierweiler.
Madame Trierweiler “has been a deeply controversial figure since moving into the Elysée following Mr Hollande’s presidential election win in 2012”, according to Britain’s Daily Mail. It is easy to see why this would be the case. The Mail adds that, “[Trierweiler] has five staff working for her, at a cost of £17,000 per month, and her taxpayer-funded perks included homes across France, and private jets and limousines at her disposal as she represents the nation at home and abroad.” Perhaps we should not be surprised that despite the fact that she is the “wronged woman” in this case, 89% of French voters apparently want their premiere dame to move out of the presidential palace.
Don’t worry: there is no need to feel bad for Trierweiler, and not just because she has been living at least partially on the taxpayers’ dime. Many years ago, I was given some sage advice: cheaters never cheat just one time. If they were willing to cheat on their previous significant other with you, then they will be willing to cheat on you with a new significant other. Such is the case with Ms. Trierweiler, as François Hollande started seeing her when he was still with his previous long-term partner, Ségolène Royal (at least, they were publicly together).
In the nearly three decades that these two Socialist Party politicians – Royal and Hollande – spent together, they had four children, though they never married, reportedly considering the institution too “bourgeois”. After Socialist candidate Royal lost in the 2007 presidential election to Sarkozy, it was announced that the couple was splitting up. By that point, Hollande and Trierweiler had been seeing one another. So it was that Hollande left Royal for Trierweiler, and now appears to have left Trierweiler for Gayet. As they say, turnabout is fair play.
This most recent scandal happened to break just before President Hollande was set to give his annual press conference, in which policy was meant to be the major focus. When he opened up the floor for questions from the media, he was immediately asked if Trierweiler would be remaining in the Élysée Palace (the president’s main residence).
“I understand your question and I’m sure you will understand my response,” Hollande said. “Everyone in their personal lives can go through tough times. That is the case (for me). These are painful moments. But I have one principle: these private affairs are dealt with in private. This is neither the time nor the place to do it so I will not be responding to any questions about my private life.”
The French journalists in the room seemed to accept this answer, causing Angus Mackinnon of Agence France-Presse to note that this was not “the kind of grilling a leader in Britain or the United States could have expected in similar circumstances”. Hollande did state that he would clarify Ms. Trierweiler’s status before making a scheduled trip to the United States next month. (As the acting “first lady”, Trierweiler has been invited to attend such events in different countries.) One can only imagine what the Obama administration must be thinking about the prospect of having this soap opera come to visit.
While Hollande may not have intended for his romantic escapades to become public knowledge, the fact is that this sex scandal is having a Wag the Dog-style effect. A recent poll showed that his popularity had actually risen in the wake of the Closer revelations. Sure, it only jumped 2% for a still pathetic approval rating of 26%, but clearly the voters are not prepared to punish Hollande for his misbehavior. If anything, it may help them to feel he is a “regular guy”, or whatever term the French use.
Well done, Mr. Hollande. You have pulled off a trick that most American politicians could never achieve: sleep around and watch your poll numbers go up. Now you just have to find a way to reduce the national debt without cutting any government programs, stimulate a highly subsidized economy, and convince people on the world stage to take you seriously. That should be easy compared to what you have already accomplished. To paraphrase Stanley Tucci in the film The Devil Wears Prada, when your personal life is in the crapper, you know it is time for a promotion!