Feature

France: A Gallic shrug at a sex scandal

Are the French finally showing interest in their leaders’ dalliances?

Are the French finally showing interest in their leaders’ dalliances? asked Cathy Newman in The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). The French tabloid Closer has published photos of President François Hollande ducking out of the Elysée Palace and zipping off on a motor scooter for a tryst with the actress Julie Gayet, at age 41 nearly 20 years his junior. This story is consuming the French press, not least because Hollande’s companion, First Lady Valérie Trierweiler, has checked into a hospital suffering from stress. It’s quite a turnaround from years past, when the press ignored French politicians’ affairs—even when, as in the case of former President François Mitterrand, they resulted in secret offspring. The change may have begun with the 2011 sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, which sparked “a debate in the French media about the previously deferential attitude to public figures and their sexual peccadilloes.”

Until now, Hollande has actually benefited from the increasing focus on politicians’ private lives, said Françoise Fressoz in Le Monde (France). For years, “his personal life was, in fact, closely linked to his political life through the power couple he formed with Ségolène Royal,” the 2007 presidential candidate and the mother of his four children. When he left Royal, the attention to his private life “helped to humanize him, even to instill a dose of romance in his otherwise too slick political career.” If we now find ourselves in a time when all boundaries between public space and private space have fallen, well, Hollande can’t complain too loudly.

Still, though the French may be following the titillating story, said Marion Joseph in Le Figaro, they aren’t letting it affect their political opinion of Hollande. More than three quarters of those polled say Hollande’s personal life is “not their concern,” and even more say the revelations don’t make them see him any differently. That’s scant comfort for the president, though, since his approval rating is at a historic low, largely due to his inability to improve France’s dismally high unemployment rate.

With such serious economic problems to discuss, it’s a good thing that Hollande skirted personal issues at this week’s long-scheduled press conference, said Thierry de Cabarrus in Le Nouvel Observateur. What the French want is “clarification of his policies, not enlightenment about his love life.” We find it distasteful, in fact, when a leader is too indiscreet about his affairs. Nicolas Sarkozy “paid a price at the polls” for reveling so openly in his love for Carla Bruni—not because he left his wife for her, but because he was so flashy in flaunting it. There are a few aspects to Hollande’s affair that do merit public interest, such as whether Trierweiler will continue as First Lady and whether the president’s security detail should have been aware of the paparazzi spying on him. But those questions hardly rise to the level of scandal. We are content to let Hollande’s personal affairs remain personal.

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