Why everyone in France is only pretending to care that François Hollande might be having an affair

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

Julie Gayet, the 41-year-old actress with whom François Hollande is alleged to be having an affair.

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.

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on "The President's Secret Love Story."

The cover of the special edition of the tabloid magazine Closer headlining on “The President’s Secret Love Story.”

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.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand's second family--his mistress and their daughter--only emerged years after his death.

Reports like this one of President François Mitterand’s second family–his mistress and their daughter–only emerged years after his death.

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.

The Morning After.

The Morning After.

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.

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Hello, This Is France Speaking, Are There Any Leaders Out There?

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The French Socialist Party is currently gathered at their annual summer summit.

As the August Paralysis (see my previous post about this) comes to an end, France is beginning to reawaken, with the politicians taking the lead. The great tradition in French politics is for each party to regroup in “Summer Schools,” which are informal summits that take place in lovely seaside spots or the south of France with a lot of networking and genuine hammering out of agendas. But while the Hollande administration gathered this week for a seminar with the theme “France in 2025,” and the Socialist party gathers now for their weekend summer school in La Rochelle (a pretty port town on the Atlantic coast), the opposition UMP party is…bickering. A lot.

And they’re bickering about something that probably seems very strange to the uninitiated. The different (and quite hostile) factions of the UMP are arguing about the right to perform a restrospective assessment of the Sarkozy presidency. It seems like an odd thing to forbid, since what else has any observer been doing since the moment the former president lost his bid for reelection. It also seems like an odd thing to forbid in a democracy! As though the president were some divine king figure whose actions were too sanctified to judge–at the risk of committing a crime of lèse-majesté. (This in itself says a lot about the way the figure of the president is perceived in France, and the way Sarkozy is, for the most part, perceived in his own party).

But here’s the thing: that fomer president is in the midst of doing what no other leader of a democracy in Europe–except Berlusconi in Italy–has ever done. After having failed to be reelected as president, he is unofficially making plans for a comeback to run for president again.

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Fomer French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made an official comeback in early July.

An assessment by his own party of what Sarkozy accomplished during his five years in office will undoubtedly highlight many accomplishments, but it’ll mostly be the occasion for the UMP party leaders who don’t support a comeback to enumerate all his mistakes and political miscalculations. It’s a very public way of undressing the emperor before he’s even made his first real sortie as a presidential candidate. For an election, by the way, which doesn’t take place until 2017. It’s also a missed opportunity for France’s primary opposition party to be focussing on the Hollande government actions at this crucial back-to-school moment.

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France in 2025?

In the French media this week, there was an interesting unity in the criticisms of both the right wing and the the left wing strategies at the moment. On the one hand the Hollande government was actually ridiculed for deciding to dedicate the opening cabinet meeting to speculations about the country 10 years from now, while the right-wing opposition was criticized for being narrow-mindedly focussed on their own past.

Neither party, it seemed, was talking about France…today.

If the French Are Among World’s Most Productive People Then Explain August

"Paris in August": it's even a film (and a novel).

“Paris in August”: it’s even a film (and a novel).

There are many paradoxes in France, the most famous of which is probably the incredibly high ratio of patisseries and steak tartare to slim French people with no more heart disease than anyone else. Why aren’t the French fat and dying young? That particular French Paradox has engendered a whole industry of envy and literature. Less well-known but, frankly, even more confounding, is the August Paradox.

Contrary to national stereotypes, the French are actually not total flâneurs. Far from it. (In fact it’s a stereotype that can get even the most delightful French journalists all worked up). You may recall the highly-tweeted episode this winter, when the American C.E.O. of the tire company Titan International, Maurice Taylor, lashed out at workers and unions in France saying French workers just sit around talking a lot and taking long lunch breaks. Turns out that in citing that national stereotype, Taylor was just reinforcing another national stereotype—of Americans as boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

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Maurice Taylor, boorish, with a propensity to mild jingoism.

Recent (and less recent) studies show that not only are French workers more productive than German workers (good to know these days when Germany is allegedly the labor model to which the rest of Europe should aspire), but they’re only marginally less productive than American workers. And American workers actually work 23% more hours than the French (who actually work more hours than the Germans). Mr. Taylor is free to think and say what he wants, and to be honest, he’s probably not the only one thinking that, but the statistical reality is that France, despite the image it projects, is the fifth biggest economy in the world. And with a population that is 20 percent of the United States population.

And with the month of August.

Now let me explain August in Paris. The city is a ghost town (and for those of you familiar with August in Paris, let me know if you think this summer’s ghostlier than others). You can cross the boulevard without looking, and ride a Vélib bicycle the wrong way up a one way street, because even if there is a car coming, there is a sense of complicity among the few warm bodies still hanging around this joint, something like “You too, eh? Here, let me give you a wide berth and hang in there, man.” Come September, that car will honk angrily and the driver will spit at you.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

An empty park bench at lunch time in a lovely public garden. Only in August.

More seriously, the city is at a commercial standstill. For most of the merchants still open last week, Friday or Saturday was their last day of business before shuttering up for three weeks (although a few, economic crisis oblige, are leaving for just two weeks). Market stands were hawking at half-price whatever limp produce they had left, and restaurateurs were serving truncated menus with only half their normal dishes in order to empty out the larders. Eyes were sparkling, waiters practically jigging, and you could sense it wasn’t the night to linger over that rest of the bottle of wine. As of Sunday, in every street, metal shutters were drawn over storefronts with the telltale piece of paper taped in the middle, announcing the dates of departure and return. There was even the occasional emoticon.

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Have you noticed that so many of the Vélibs (Paris’s free public bicycles) seem to be missing or broken or have flat tires? It’s August and everyone’s working at half-staff, Vélib maintenance included. In fact the only maintenance workers on duty are the métro staffers, because in August, since no one—pretty much literally—is around riding public transportation, that’s when they shutter whole lines for several weeks. Have you ever had a medical emergency in Paris in August? Don’t. I had a scheduled surgery a few years ago in the summer, on the last week this chief surgeon in a public hospital was taking appointments: the first week of June.

Small businesses will shut down entirely and the whole staff will take leave at the same time—because there aren’t any clients around to do business. In large companies, the executive offices will be empty, a skeletal staff will stick around enjoying the absence of phone calls and emails, and sometimes company cafeterias will just close. I worked for many years at a 24-hour international news network, a French-style CNN, and yet every summer, just like the rest of French media, the bosses’ offices would empty, the number of news bulletins would shrink, shows would be suspended until fall. As though the rest of the world’s news went on holiday in August like it does in France, where French newspapers run light summer series and reduce their news pages since, well, there’s really no news (N.B: this week’s headline is the revolt of angry egg producers who are smashing their stocks because of low prices. Believe it or not, this is interesting, so come back here for more on this shortly).

All I can say, unlike Maurice Taylor, is bravo. Although I, too, find French unions often dogmatic, and I actually feel quite torn about the August Paradox. I find the August ritual freakishly normative, and alienating for people who don’t have the option to leave (I could plan to be out of town if I chose to). I also find it really annoying when metro stations are closed, when my boulangerie is closed, when all the damn dry cleaners are on holiday (who’s got office clothes to wash?), when my French colleagues didn’t seem to think that there was a credibility issue for a network allegedly covering international news to scale down to a “summer news schedule.” How can any industry, let alone a whole economy, be globally competitive when three months of the year feel like write-offs (June is counting down, July is wrapping things up, and August is a black-out)?

Like so much about French culture, August is deeply resistant. And yet like so many other French rituals, August seems, paradoxically, to be highly functional. The August paralysis, this highly-protected custom of total shutdown, doesn’t seem to have made France the country of sclerotic inefficiency that Maurice Taylor claims. So bravo, because if you can take the most significant amount of vacation of any country in the world and still be more productive than the Germans, well, then you’re getting something right.

Big Trends at GEN 2013 News Summit in Paris (or, I have seen the future of media and it’s pretty radical)

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Paris’s city hall where the Global Editors Network News Summit took place last week, from June 19 to June 21, 2013.

If there was a revolution being tweeted at the Global Editors Network 2013 News Summit that just wrapped up in Paris last week, it’s that content, once king, is no longer.

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That was the gospel being preached by many different media actors from across the spectrum, from CUNY journalism professor and media guru, Jeff Jarvis, to Shafqat Islam, CEO of NewsCred, one of the most successful recent media start-ups, to Mark Little, co-founder of social media news agency, Storyful.

“We are not in the content business,” Jarvis expounded, “It is a trap. Content is a fine thing, but if that’s all we do, we are missing out.” To an audience of mostly journalists he declared that, “we are in the service business…it’s about building relationships.” Which for most journalists is a dramatic (and not entirely comfortable) paradigm shift, in which the consumers of news take precedence over the providers of news – those erstwhile journalists.

Jeff Jarvis likes to shock, but there seemed to be consensus among the players at the GEN summit around the heart of his argument: that content, today, is…easy. Technology has made content ultra-accessible, broadcastable and consumable, and if media aim solely to produce great content—as we all once did—then they’re missing the point. Consumers are drowning in content. What consumers want are better ways to access the content that interests them most. What makes the difference today is the curation, packaging and design surrounding the content. In 2013, content and container are officially on equal footing.

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Replacing content as king is, thus, the consumer. This was another big theme at GEN 2013: that the key to success in the new media ecosystem is being able to find out and anticipate what consumers want, and many of the media technology start-ups present at the summit were focused on just that. “You need to know your audience and how to get to them,” explained Benoit Raphael (@benoitraphael), co-founder of the start-up Trendsboard, a tool to help editors to predict what will be trending next. “Media should behave like brands,” he said. This was an echo of a common refrain, heard often throughout the several days of the conference, that media companies need to be technology companies – and to behave like brands. For Dennis Mortensen (@DennisMortensen), the founder of Visual Revenue, another tool to help editors makes strategic choices about the content they put forward, the rationale for media companies to develop tech tools and behave like brands is simple: why not make editorial decisions that also, incidentally, make money? Why not “optimize” editorial?

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Storyful’s Mark Little (@marklittlenews, a former foreign correspondent himself) drew a slightly sharper line between media and tech when it comes to the core purpose of journalism today. “It’s not about technology,” Little explained, “It’s about the change in human behavior that technology liberates.” Which still speaks to the same revolution driving so much of the change in media today: because technology has enabled new forms of news production (amateur content, crowd-sourcing, real-time updates) and news consumption (mobile, downloadable, aggregated), the expectations of consumers have changed. And news media—this seemed to be everyone’s over-arching message at #GEN13—had better learn to listen.

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Listening to consumers is what brands do best, which is why so much of the media strategy discussed at the conference sounded like brand strategy. Building relationships, trust, loyalty. Giving consumers what they want and how they want it. This is what Jarvis means when he talks about news today as a “service business”.  It’s also the way today’s new hybrid tech media start-ups are thinking. As David Cohn (@digidave), the director of news at Cir.ca, a recently launched and much-hyped mobile-news-app that breaks down news into its essential quotes, facts and data, explained: Circa is not about summarizing the news, but about “atomizing” the news, so that people can consume the news particles as they wish.

Journalism 3.0 is here.