The old stereotype is that puritanical American voters obsess about their leaders’ sex lives while the French can’t be bothered. Take, for instance, the contrast between Bill Clinton, whose extramarital affair dominated American politics for years, and François Mitterrand, who was somehow able to spend most of the nights of his presidency staying with a second family without the press, public, or political opposition taking notice. (Both “widows” attended his funeral.)
But for a country that supposedly doesn’t care about politicians’ sex lives, we seem to hear an awful lot about French politicians’ sex lives. A policy address by deeply unpopular President François Hollande this week was overshadowed by tabloid reports that he has been having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. First lady Valerie Trierweiler has been hospitalized for unclear reasons.
Hollande was supposed to be Monsieur Normal, an appealingly bland return to sanity after the tabloid distractions of the Sarkozy years. But his messy personal life has been on display almost from the beginning with his partner, Trierweiler, carrying on a very public feud with Hollande's ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal.
It’s true that 77 percent of French voters say the affair should be a personal matter and 84 percent say it won’t change their (very negative) opinion of Hollande. But with all due respect to Slate’s French readers, I don’t buy this for a second. The gossip magazine Closer sold out the issue featuring photos of Hollande pulling up to Gayet’s apartment. (The continuing devotion of French gossip hounds to print magazines may be the real anomaly here.) The first question at today’s press conference, which was supposed to be devoted to policy issues, from the head of the Presidential Press Association, was whether Trierweiler is still first lady. (Hollande ducked it.) It’s true that the mainstream media in France was slow to jump on this until the Closer photos forced the issue, but the blogosphere has been buzzing about Hollande and Gayet for almost a year.
It was likely Sarkozy who put the nail in the coffin of France’s former discretion toward its leaders’ peccadilloes. Sarkozy’s presidency began with his messy divorce from his second wife, was dominated for much of his first term by his paparazzi-baiting romance with Carla Bruni, and ended with sordid reports of him punishing his justice minister for spreading rumors about Bruni having an affair. Alex Duval Smith of the Guardian predicted in 2008 that “The enduring effect of the Bruni-Sarkozy saga will be to wipe out the French media's silence over politicians' private lives,” and subsequent events seem to have borne this out.
To be sure, the French aren’t quite Americans yet. It’s almost impossible to imagine the global-media-dominating seismic Drudgequake that would result if Barack Obama were ever photographed being dropped off by motorcycle at a Hollywood starlet’s apartment. The U.S. hasn’t even elected an unmarried president since James Buchanan, much less one who has had relationships with three very famous women, none of whom he has married.
But in terms of the media's attitude toward what's acceptable to cover about presidents, things haven’t actually been this way in the U.S. for that long. John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt would find today’s U.S. media about as uncomfortable as Mitterrand would. U.S. voters are fairly realistic about this, with the majority saying that greater scrutiny rather than falling morals is the reason why there are more political sex scandals today.
The French may never have been quite as blasé about political sex as they like to pretend—see the Félix Faure story—but a number of factors, including the Internet and the British and American tabloid media’s insatiable hunger for French sex scandals, are making it harder for the mainstream French media to downplay these stories or for French citizens to act like they’re not interested.