Are cheating politicians now fair game for the French press?
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A tabloid magazine on Friday claimed to have caught President François Hollande having an affair with a famous actress. It was an unprecedented move in France, where the press have traditionally turned a blind eye to politicians’ romantic escapades.
Hollande quickly slammed the report* as an attack on his right to privacy, and said that he was “looking into possible action, including legal action” against the French tabloid magazine that published the photos.
But Hollande, who lives with his partner, former political journalist Valérie Trierweiler, did not specifically deny the allegations.
Exposing leaders’ infidelities and trawling through their private lives may be commonplace in the United States and Britain, but in France such stories have largely remained a no-go area for the media, even the tabloids.
Right to privacy?
French law strictly protects the individual’s right to privacy and the French public are largely in agreement with this position.
However, in recent years, the French media has shifted in its policy on reporting on politician’s private lives.
By targeting Hollande so openly this week, the taboo appears to have been completely shattered.
Matthew Fraser, a lecturer at the prestigious Science Po University in Paris and who has widely written about the media industry, believes that the magazine is engaged in an interesting test.
If Hollande does pursue legal action against the publication he could win, but is unlikely to win a large pay out: French courts almost never award large damages.
“If he sues and wins, the tabloid will probably be able to write the check on the spot,” the academic said. “Obviously the magazine has made its calculations, and even if it has to pay a fine it thinks it will come out with a gain.”
From Mitterrand’s mistress to Sarkozy’s bling
“It’s the first time that a magazine has printed photos of a president allegedly caught in the act of having an affair. It is also the first time a president has reacted by directly addressing the magazine in question,” Christian Delponte, a French historian who specialises in politics and the media, told FRANCE 24.
“When François Mitterrand was president [between 1981 and 1995] the entire media establishment knew everything about his sexual escapades and conquests, but they chose to say nothing about it,” Science Po’s Fraser told FRANCE 24. “Those days are over.”
Mitterrand not only had a string of affairs, but a second family. The existence of his illegitimate daughter was only revealed by the press in 1994, when she was 20 years old.
According to Delponte, the French press first began to breach this norm in the 1990s, and that was largely because politicians themselves sought to be photographed with their families and opened up their private lives for political gain.
He said Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, played a significant role in blurring the boundary between public and private spheres by turning the figure of the president into that of a celebrity.
Indeed, Sarkozy was often criticised in France for flaunting his friendship with wealthy and famous friends in front of the cameras.
However, Delponte argues that the publics’ reaction to this story will be the key for French media companies. He believes that if the public tolerate this new “invasion” then it will be a brave new world for the French press, and that the reporting on politician’s private lives can then only grow in France.
A case in point
Hollande’s own story of budding and broken romances can also serve as an example of France’s evolving norms. The president struck up a relationship with First Lady Trierweiler in the early 2000s.
At the time Hollande was the leader of Socialist Party and in a long-term relationship with fellow politician Ségolène Royal, with whom he had four children, and Trierweiler was a journalist covering the Socialist Party for glossy magazine Paris Match.
The love affair between the glamorous reporter and the party boss was common knowledge among many reporters, but the affair was never reported.
It was only after Hollande and Royal’s marriage unravelled in 2007, and that he acknowledged in 2010 that Trierweiler was the “woman of my life” that the press gave itself license to talk about the “new” couple.
* FRANCE 24 has decided not to publish either the name of the actress or the name of the publication that reported the affair allegations out of respect for the privacy of those involved.