Once veiled, French affairs feed tabloids

Despite global interest, public willing to grant leaders leeway

by Agnes C. Poirier

The Observer

On Friday morning, I woke up as my usual French self. Then, from under the duvet, I reached for my smartphone and learned from Twitter that the French edition of Closer magazine had published pictures purportedly revealing an affair between President Francois Hollande and actress Julie Gayet. There had been rumors for months, as there inevitably are in the higher echelons of power. Gossip is like the background noise of a Parisian cafe: the little music of our lives, familiar and inconsequential.

At 7:18 a.m., an angry Hollande made a statement to the AFP news agency deploring the attack on his privacy and declaring he might seek legal action. Good for him, I thought. His office stressed that this was the citizen, not the president, speaking.

End of story. I shrugged my shoulders and thought little more about it, much more concerned by the legal wrangles of French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who was trying to ban the comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala from performing his anti-Semitic routine in theaters and clubs around France.

For the past three weeks, France has been facing one relentless question: Does freedom of speech stop where incitement to hatred begins? Gallivanting was definitely not on our minds that Friday morning.

An hour later, at the newsstand, I bought my usual hefty pile of French and international newspapers, and didn’t even glance at Closer. Isn’t it always the same, salacious and badly written stories with ugly pictures? Gossip is not news.

This was to prove a difficult stance to maintain. I was barely into my third espresso when I started receiving calls and emails asking me to comment. No, surely nobody was interested — or, to be really French about it, nobody should be interested.

I couldn’t help noticing the painful truth that the world media seems interested in France only when it complies with the stereotypes and does what is expected of it: promiscuity, grandstanding in foreign policy, sex on the big screen, economic dirigisme, secular authoritarianism and xenophobia.

I didn’t have much time to lament the power of cliches. An article on Closer’s revelations and Hollande’s dalliance quickly appeared on the BBC website and immediately shot to most-read item on the site. Things were getting serious: calls poured in from Washington, New York, London, Doha, Brussels. I was being too French about it, it seems; it was high time I started looking at this through British eyes.

I went out to buy Closer. It was a revelation — and I am not talking about Hollande’s alleged affair. I belong to the generation that grew up under President Francois Mitterrand, a time when nobody would have dared to publish images showing the president going to a rendezvous and leaving the morning after. Well, let me rephrase: Nobody would have dreamed of spending a whole night hiding outside a building in order to take such pictures.

I grew up in a country where the president embodied not just the state but also the nation. He may be a man, but he is also an institution. He is France — in other words, he is me and I am him. We may dislike the human being; we inevitably revere the symbol. Hence the deference — or at the very least, the inherent respect — accorded any French president by his compatriots.

That was then. Times have changed. Gossip magazines of the Closer kind, which did not exist in the Mitterrand era, are now a thriving force, with millions of readers. Trivia is of the essence. Every week, those publications put aside the money for the fines they will probably have to pay for breaching France’s strict privacy laws. Tellingly, over the past 20 years, French judges have become less severe and the fines have got smaller. Revealing celebrities’ intimacies has become “affordable,” almost a fact of life. And politicians have had to learn that the hard way.

The best ally of France’s gossip press in recent years has been a former president. In a clear break with tradition, the taboo-busting Nicolas Sarkozy ventured to stage his private life for political gain. He shamelessly used his ex-wife, Cecilia, and his new flame, Carla Bruni — whom he subsequently married after a few months of intense and overexposed courtship — as publicity props.

Talk about a culture shock. We had to close our eyes whenever we saw them on television: Nicolas with Carla in tow and her coyness a la Bambi. Images of their now-famous amorous escape to the pyramids of Egypt were simply too embarrassing to watch.

Hollande obviously belongs to the old order of discretion, and would feel extremely uncomfortable in this new environment — as, probably, would a big chunk of the French electorate.

While we may have gone a long way toward the 24-hour voyeuristic society Britain and the U.S. enjoy (or suffer from), the overall culture in France is still one that values privacy highly.

As the right-wing politician Marine Le Pen declared a couple of hours after Closer’s revelations: “Everybody is entitled to their privacy, and so is the president — providing this doesn’t cost a penny to the taxpayer.”

Reading Closer’s report on Hollande’s alleged affair is an education. Instead of being salacious, the tone of the article is more reminiscent of a lowbrow romantic novelist. There is talk of “passion,” “stolen nights,” “cooing” and “being in love.” A picture of Hollande in a crash helmet that looks slightly awry carries a caption that reads, “Francois is so in love, he has forgotten to secure his helmet properly.” This is less journalism than lowbrow romantic fiction.

Seven pages of pictures show the sequence of events that is supposed to prove the affair. Gayet arrives at an apartment belonging to friends, near the Elysee Palace, with a smile on her face. Half an hour later, the president’s bodyguard comes in, allegedly to check the premises, and, a few minutes later, here comes a stout-looking man in a dark suit and a helmet, driven by a chauffeur on a three-wheeled scooter. The morning after, the same bodyguard comes in at 8 a.m. with a bag full of croissants.

I am now looking at this entirely through British eyes, and I suddenly understand why the world media has flocked to Paris to report on the story. Imagine the head of state of the world’s fifth-biggest economy scooting through the streets of Paris at night to a rendezvous, and being delivered breakfast at 8 a.m. by his bodyguard. So simple, so organic, so carefree, so natural. And so terribly Parisian. Surely, the highest form of civilization, and the envy of the world. What other head of state could actually do the same? None. And no other head of state could survive the revelation totally unscathed.

I think it is safe to say that this will not prove to be Hollande’s political swan song. If a majority of the French people think it is a distraction the country doesn’t need at a time of rising unemployment and social discontent, the affair won’t affect his ratings — which are currently so low they could hardly sink further. It could even boost his image abroad.

I simply hope for the country that the lovers quickly find another love nest, so that the president can get on with the work of reforming France.