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Opinion:
Douglas HERBERT

Douglas HERBERT
International Affairs Editor

The Gayet Affair : What Hollande should have said

Le 15-01-2014

Below is what I wish Hollande had said – but didn’t – at Tuesday’s press conference.

“Good afternoon, 

Before I start, I want to address an issue that has been making headlines and sparking a debate not just here in France, but in the foreign press as well. It concerns my private life – to be precise, my love life - and what I choose to do, and with whom I choose to do it, in the intimacy of my bedroom – or, in this case, the intimacy of a rented bedroom.

I just got off the phone with Nicolas Sarkozy. Yes, that Nicolas Sarkozy. The one that many of you speculate is angling to get his old job back. As you know, there is little love lost between my predecessor and myself. But politicians – even arch-rivals – often find common ground, even a need, to commiserate when they find themselves up against the wall. French presidents are no exception.

For all our mutual animus, there are times when Nicolas and I are able to put our differences aside and share our experiences and coping strategies, in a very lonely office.

So I reached out and called Nicolas. I wanted to solicit his advice on how to confront what some of you are calling “Gayet-Gate”. He offered several bullet points of advice, things he told me he would say faced with a similar situation. I have decided to follow his sage counsel, verbatim. So let’s start:

1) “I have had – and am continuing to have – an affair with the actress Julie Gayet.”

Not an extramarital affair. I am not, after all, married to my current partner, Valerie Trierweiler. It’s just an affair – with all the messy manoeuvring that such a relationship, under the circumstances, implies.

Unlike my predecessor, I can’t say at this point whether it is “serious” between Julie and me, or just a short-term dalliance. But what I can say is that it’s a relationship that I – no, we - chose to pursue, knowing full well that while it may not be the morally upstanding thing to do, it was what I – no, we - wanted to do, as consensual adults.

Yes, I’ve asked myself on several occasions: ‘François, how does this look to the voters? A prominent politician who’s already split with one long-time partner (the mother of his four children) – turning around and doing the same thing again with his new partner, this time while simultaneously holding the highest office in the land. Compounding matters, Valérie seems to be finding her footing as France’s informal First Lady, finally settling into the job after a rocky start. And there I go, spoiling her triumphal moment.’

She is perhaps, at this very moment, watching this press conference from her hospital bed, after suffering a “coup de blues”. To Valérie, I apologise for the bruised feelings. But I must also say that given the choice, I would do it all again.

To all of you, I ask, put yourself in my place: a president facing record-low ratings, the worst of any head of state in the Fifth Republic (I think the latest poll pegged my at 24% approval). I’m under fire on every front - even within my own Socialist ranks.

Even a guy with an outsized ego – as most presidents have – is bound to feel some performance anxiety, not just on the job, but in the bedroom as well. Then a young, attractive woman comes along – one who sings your praises in public, lauds your manly virtues.

I defy any man in an already complicated relationship, with a notoriously difficult partner, to resist the temptation to strike out in a different direction. Julie was the right woman, at the right time, saying all the right things.

I remember an editorial cartoon an aide once showed me from the Anglo-Saxon press. It was during the 2004 US election, before I was president. It showed Uncle Sam standing in front of the State of Florida. The limp “trunk” of the State of Florida was jutting from Uncle Sam’s trousers, dangling there in the Atlantic. Below the cartoon was a caption: “Electile dysfunction”. I chuckled at the time. Just as I chuckled this week when I read in the press that some of you suggested that Julie might help me to “inverser la courbe”.

For my non-French-speaking friends out there, in the foreign press, it’s taken from my post-election pledge to “reverse the trend” on unemployment by the end of 2013. But as you can see, in this context, it has a lewder connotation.

2) “I am the most public of public figures in France and expect that my private life will be subject to intense scrutiny.”

This is not to say, of course, that I want my private life to be scrutinized. Who does? Unless you are a serial exhibitionist – which I’m not – you will not take kindly to such exposure. Closer had a right to publish what it did – even if I privately wish it hadn’t.

The media in this country has traditionally faced strict legal strictures when it comes to privacy. In many cases, you – you, being the French journalists present here today – have been complicit in turning a deaf ear to the dalliances and peccadilloes of presidents past and present.

Time was when French presidents died while being administered fellatio – or so the legend has it – in the Elysée Palace, and the circumstances of the sudden death would remain a subject of fierce conjecture for years, or decades, to come.

Imagine if Félix Faure, the seventh French president, had lived – and died – in the age of Facebook and Twitter? The boundaries of privacy are shifting by the day, as is the level of encroachment on our lives by actors in the public domain. But the fact is, even today, we probably don’t have enough scrutiny of public figures by the press.

A British reporter observed that foreign journalists are much more interested in my affair with Julie, than their French counterparts. The latter tend to regard the whole thing as sordid and salacious – the type of thing fit for grovelling, tabloid-crazed Anglo-Saxon journalists.

Now, I am hardly a fan of the British tabloid press, and I also cringe at the prudishness and moral hypocrisy so prevalent across the American media. One false move in your private life and your political career comes crashing down – though redemption also beckons from the wilderness beyond.

But at the same time, I think France could use a little more healthy journalistic prying into the private lives of the high and mighty. That is not to say that every cavorting president is a bad leader. As one American commentator pointed out – Richard Nixon was faithful to his wife, to a fault, while Bill Clinton was not. You can draw the conclusions.

3) “Finally, I am reassured by initial polls suggesting that most of you, my fellow citizens, don’t give much of a hoot about any of this.”

It’s one thing to take a guilty pleasure in wanting to know what your leaders are up to behind your back. It’s another thing to care. I am heartened by the polls showing that three quarters of the French public believe my private life is a personal matter. And even more so by the fact that 84% haven’t changed their opinion of me as a result.

Now I can see some of you snickering, thinking, ‘Yeah, they have the same lousy opinion of you as before the scandal broke.’

That may be true. As I mentioned earlier, my approval ratings are languishing at some of the lowest levels of any president in modern history. Julie Gayet may extol me as a president who’s humble and attentive to the French public’s concerns. But the French themselves see me as indecisive at best, and incompetent at worst, on issues ranging from the economy to unemployment, to France’s competitive position in the world..

Now I may – I do – believe that that judgment is misplaced, and that history will ultimately see me as a man who had their best interests at heart, but who was swimming against the tide, against the current of far-right nationalism and disaffection with mainstream politicians. I welcome a tough appraisal on the issues that matter.

If the French are willing to cut me some slack on my affair, it’s probably because they feel they have far better reasons to resent me as a president. That knowledge hurts me. It chastens me. But it also inspires me to be a better president.

We live in an age when foreign intelligence agencies snoop on allies, including presidents, and even mine their phone records and email. Millions of us have been targeted by the NSA in the US. That is a grave violation of privacy – far more serious than any snooping on my private life by the reporters at Closer.

At the end of the day, I am a president who will always defend your right to be informed about your leader’s private behaviour. Yet I do so in the hope that an educated, informed citizenry will be able to draw the line between the right to know – and the need to know.

I thank you for understanding that my affair with Julie Gayet has no bearing on how I run this country. For those of you still seeking more details on my affair, I shall shortly be posting a lengthy Q&A section on the official website of the Presidency.

Now, if you will permit me, I’d like to turn my attention to the 3.2 million of my fellow French citizens who are out of jobs…”

 

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