By Matthew Fraser, media commentator, Special to CNN
At first blush, Francois Hollande seems comically ill-suited in the role as ardent seducer of fetching actresses. And in many respects the astonishing allegations of his secret love trysts are like the improbable plot of a door-slamming French farce.
Hollande’s alleged sexual escapades, revealed by the gossip magazine “Closer,” are buzzing through the French media and burning up Twitter streams gushing with shock, sniggering and outrage that so much attention is being devoted to something so irrelevant to affairs of state. Yet, at a time when the French are tired of reading how depressed they are, claims of Hollande’s bedroom romp may well be a welcome distraction. It may even help him in the polls.
Hollande is nonetheless threatening legal action against “Closer” for privacy invasion. That gesture itself is extraordinary for two reasons.
First, Hollande has not denied the affair with 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet — the magazine has pulled its article from its online edition under pressure from Gayet’s lawyers, but says that does not mean its claims are inaccurate.
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Second, in the past Hollande’s predecessors in the Elysee Palace — notably Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac — never had to worry about the French press reporting their feminine conquests.
Until recently, a media omerta protected the private lives of French politicians from the kind of intense scrutiny that British and American politicians are well accustomed.
If the “Closer” photo spread is accurate, Hollande’s secret assignations with Julie Gayet were bizarrely comical. He was allegedly slipping out the back door of the Elysee Palace, hopping on a scooter and buzzing through the streets of Paris on his way to Gayet’s apartment.
There’s a claim that presidential bodyguard brought croissants to the love nest in the morning. Touching, perhaps, but not very presidential if true.
One can only imagine how Hollande’s official companion, Valerie Trierweiler, reacted to reports of such assignations.
Trierweiler met Hollande when she was a reporter for “Paris Match” magazine. He left his long-time common-law wife, Segolene Royal — the mother of his four children — for Trierweiler before the 2012 presidential election.
According to the claims in “Closer,” it would seem he may now have replaced Trierweiler with Gayet, though Trierweiler still occupies one wing of the Elysee Palace.
In that respect, Hollande would be adhering to a time-honored French tradition of official mistresses stretching back to the Bourbon kings.
Louis XV fell under the influence of the Marquise de Pompadour, who was his “favorite” at court. A century later Napoleon III was an indefatigable seducer of alluring courtesans.
In the Third Republic, George Clemenceau was an infamous womanizer; and Felix Faure famously died in 1899 while enjoying the lascivious attentions of his mistress in the Elysee Palace.
The corpulent and affable Hollande may have learned the hard way that, unlike his political mentor Mitterrand, he cannot count on media complicity about his personal indiscretions.
He could have realized that while watching Nicolas Sarkozy’s personal crises fill the headlines.
When the former French president’s wife Cecilia left him for another man, “Paris Match” published a photo of Cecilia and her new boyfriend. And when Sarkozy began courting the fashion model Carla Bruni, their romance was all over the press, much of it stage-managed by Sarkozy.
French vs. Anglo-American media
Traditionally, French and Anglo-American media behavior regarding the private lives of public figures have been a study in contrast.
The standard explanation is that the French media never reported on private lives because the French simply don’t care about the personal vices of their leaders. The Anglo-Saxon press, on the other, have shown a prurient interest in private vices to pander to a pervasive “Puritanical” culture in America and Britain.
This may explain why Anglo-American politicians caught with their pants down tend to confess and resign — or in some cases wheel out wife and children and apologize abjectly, then resign under pressure shortly afterwards.
In France, by contrast, politicians tend to sue and stay in office. If French politicians can count on Catholic indulgence in their vices, the law is also on their side.
That changed when Dominique Strauss-Kahn — who was favored over Hollande as Socialist candidate for the French presidency — was arrested in New York for sexual assault.
At first the French media establishment was stunned. The old omerta rules didn’t apply in this case. Not only was a criminal act alleged but it was alleged to have taken place in America, where different media laws and attitudes applied. Many in the French establishment fulminated against Anglo-Saxon press abuses in sensationalizing the DSK scandal, but the fact is that the French media jumped in.
With the Hollande sex scandal, the French political establishment is predictably coming to his defense and condemning the tabloid excesses of “Closer.” But again, it hasn’t stopped the mainstream French media from covering the story.
Beyond Anglo vs. French cultural differences, the law is another factor. While there are distinctions between American and British law, generally speaking the press can report on private lives if claims can be proved to be true. Truth is the test.
French law, by contrast, is indifferent to truth. In France, protecting personal privacy trumps the truth. In France numerous politicians and celebrities have successfully sued gossip magazines for violating their privacy.
In most cases, however, damages awarded are relatively modest. “Closer” magazine — even if it loses a lawsuit brought by Hollande — will likely pay a small fine compared with the huge profits from newsstand sales of the alleged Hollande sex scandal edition.
French law, even if strict on privacy matters, is increasingly becoming irrelevant with the explosion of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. French courts have no extra-territorial jurisdiction over anyone tweeting, posting and commenting outside of France about Hollande’s sexual escapades.
Even in France, it’s impossible for Hollande, or any other public figure, to bring lawsuits against everyone who has violated their privacy on Twitter or Facebook.
The alleged Hollande sexual scandal proves that the old media omerta rules and predictable legal gesticulations don’t work anymore in France. It’s a new game with new rules.