So the big news in France today is that the president, François Hollande, might be having an affair. If it sounds like the opening line of a late-night show, that’s because the French public and French media seem to be greeting the news with the same deadpan tone that comics like to use. Because nobody’s really that surprised and, mostly, nobody actually cares that much.
Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a big media frenzy and hubbub of social media activity, and lots of snickering. First of all it’s a break from conversations about the Dieudonné controversy. People are tired of debating the issue of the rightness or wrongness of banning the comedian’s anti-semitic performances, so a presidential affair is the perfect—legitimate—excuse to talk about something else. But there’s no real intensity to the reactions. If people are commenting the claim by the tabloid magazine, Closer, that Hollande is having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet it’s because, well, after all he is the president of France.
Many French media seem to be echoing a similar refrain: that the presidential entourage has known for several days that the story was going to come out “but did nothing to prevent it.” Which is a media’s enigmatic—or disingenuous—way of implying that, well, the story is true, without actually appearing to report anything more than the fact that these allegations have been made and that Hollande may choose to pursue the tabloid for invasion of privacy.
The enigmatic and disingenuous media is an issue that the French love to revisit. And they’ve been indulging all day. With unavowed nostalgia they recall that time, back in the 80s, when for years—nearly a decade—the media covered up the story of President Mitterand’s second family. Most observers agree today that they should condemn that time and that culture; not the President’s affair, but the culture that entitled the President and other powerful politicians to some divine right of discretion, and engendered a self-enforced censorship among the media. Since the Strauss-Kahn affair, it’s become more complicated to defend that omertà or any powerful person’s special entitlement to indiscretions.
Nonetheless, there’s also been a unified chorus of responses from Hollande’s ministers and his supporters, and even his political opponents, condemning Closer’s publication of the story. They have all come out stating that the President—or, as many have said it, “even the President”—has a right to privacy. Some socialist politicians were actually refusing to comment, saying that the matter has nothing to do with politics, end of story.
So is that true? Does the President’s affair, if he’s having one, have nothing to do with politics? Is the President just a normal guy who deserves privacy? Interestingly, the editor-in-chief of Closer makes the same argument to defend her magazine’s publication of pictures allegedly proving the affair. President Hollande, she said on the radio this morning, “is a normal president who was swept off his feet. There’s no need for so much drama around (the publication of) these pictures.” That a man—even this man—falls for a woman, she implies, is no big deal.
It’s not exactly an uncalculated defence, since Hollande’s campaign slogan—which was much ridiculed—was that his would be a “normal presidency,” in opposition to the ostentatious presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy who had so immodestly spread the details of his private life before the public, divorcing shortly after his election and then just a few months after that marrying the former model and musician, Carla Bruni.
Whether a “normal” president is one who deserves the right to privacy or one who deserves the right to let himself be seduced now seems to be a question. The answer, of course, is that a “normal” president deserves both. It’s just a uniquely French rhetorical obliqueness (or disingenuousness) to defend the former while actually, really, defending the latter.
And what’s also wonderfully, uniquely French is that politicians are defending the president at all. Could you ever imagine American politicians simply refusing to talk about published allegations that the president is having an affair? Could you ever imagine a senator or congressman, when asked about widely-circulated photographs featuring the President of the United States of America spending the night with a woman who is not his wife in a building that is not the White house—simply saying it’s none of his business? Well, that’s how they roll in France.
To give another example of how these things go down in France—and to continue reinforcing a few more stereotypes about French culture—there is some speculation among political analysts and pollsters about the possibility that this affair will actually be good for Hollande politically. The same magazine, a mainstream tabloid publication, that broke the story on its website last night published a poll today asking readers whether:
- The affair will make François Hollande more popular!
- After these revelations the President loses all credibility!
(The results as of 11:50 p.m. this evening are 22% thinking it’ll be good for Hollande, and 78% thinking it’ll hurt him).
One final subsidiary point in the underwhelming affair of President Hollande’s affair is the fact that he would find time to have one at all. It never ceases to amaze and delight me that the President of the 5th largest economy in the world—that also happens to be on the brink of another recession—is able to find the mindspace, and the slot in his schedule, to take a lover.
Part of the story revealed by Closer in the photographs published is of the morning after one of the supposed lovers’ trysts. Pictures show a man who is allegedly the President’s bodyguard entering the building with a little paper bag of…croissants.
In France, it’s not really a Morning After unless there are croissants. Even for the President.