The Hollande Affair and the End of Presidential Privacy in France

The sexual escapades of French leaders have been the stuff of rumor for decades. What makes the latest scandal different?
French President François Hollande listens to a question during a news conference in Paris, on January 14. (Reuters/Philippe Wojazer)

François Hollande joins a long tradition of French Fifth Republic presidents who have allegedly had affairs. Widespread attachment to France’s privacy laws, and a press corps that generally agrees with them, combined with a generalized reverence for the office of the presidency have meant that rumors always remained largely rumors—until now.

In the past, gossip did no harm because there was always and still is a generally more indulgent attitude to affairs of the heart and tolerance of “liaisons” by both men and women (especially men). There has also been the conviction throughout French history that power is the strongest aphrodisiac both for those who exercise it and those fascinated by it.

The nearest Charles de Gaulle got to sexual scandal was his wife Yvonne being asked by an English reporter what was the most important thing in her life, to which she replied “a penis” (say “happiness” slowly with a French accent). But stories of sexual intrigue—probably secret service smears—surrounded the Pompidous.

Valéry Giscard d’Estaing set the tone, and he encouraged it, seeing himself as a true Don Juan. Rumors still abound of many liaisons—did he and the soft-core star Sylvia Kristel have an affair in the Élysée? Who was the woman in the Ferrari he was with when, driving though Paris in the early hours, he hit a milk van? He even happily encouraged rumors about himself, for example, that a president just like him had an affair with a princess just like Diana.

François Mitterrand was also linked to many women, including the editor of Elle, Françoise Giroud, the singer Dalida, and many more. Rumor became fact when he revealed he had raised a second secret family, and a secret daughter Mazarine, at the state’s expense. Ah les beaux jours!

The tone changed from the stylish and Romanesque to testosterone-fueled vulgarity with Jacques Chirac, known by his chauffeur (and then the world) as “Mr. 15 minutes, shower included.” His highly popular and respected wife, Bernadette Chirac, started a sea-change in attitudes when, in her best-selling autobiography, she wrote touchingly and honestly about how painful that aspect of her marriage had been.

Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly had affairs with journalists, including, allegedly, Chirac’s daughter Claude, but his dalliances and his very public life with second wife Cécilia Sarkozy and later Carla Bruni were seen more as the uncontrollable passions of a (short) man with uncontrollable ambition, an uncontrollable temper, and an uncontrollable desire for attention and affection.

***

Even with that history, there are five things that make Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet sadly comical and politically dangerous. First is the sea-change mentioned earlier. Attitudes have shifted, not so much about sexual mores and the weaknesses of the flesh—in fact, with the decline in religious observance, things are even more liberal. But cheating on your wife or partner, with such intensity and frequency is seen—even in France—as sexist and the sign of a patriarchal society, and of inequality and disrespect. And sending your partner, Valérie Trierweiler, into hospital in a state of nervous collapse is not seen as the act of a man of integrity.

Second, Hollande came in to stop all this stuff. He was “Mr. Normal” who was going to bring exemplary conduct to political life, and stop all the tabloid press gossip lowering the status of the presidency. He said so himself. In fact, his somewhat tortured relationships with former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Trierweiler, and now Gayet have never been out of the headlines.

Presented by

John Gaffney is a professor of politics, co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, and a visiting professor at Sciences-Po, Rennes.

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