• France edition
 
Are politicians' secrets no longer safe in France?
Josh Hallett

Are politicians' secrets no longer safe in France?

Published: 11 Nov 2011 09:28 GMT+01:00
Updated: 10 Nov 2011 11:13 GMT+01:00

The DSK affair and recent furore over the comments by presidents Sarkozy and Obama about Israel's prime minister, raises the question of whether the culture of discretion regarding the privacy of politicians in France is being eroded.

As they were preparing to give their press conference at the G20 meeting in Cannes, President Sarkozy reportedly told the US president he “cannot bear” Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding “he’s a liar.” 

“What about me?” said Obama, "I have to deal with him every day." Neither president knew their microphones were already live.

The comments were overheard by some French journalists, but only went public when a French website reported it four days later.

In many other countries, a private comment like that would have been splashed across the headlines almost immediately. 

"I wondered last night what a group of French reporters was thinking in deciding not to report the candid comments," wrote journalist Ben Smith on the US website Politico. 

“I find it hard to imagine [American reporters] wouldn’t have printed the conversations in a similar situation.”

When it comes to their politicians, French journalists have always been willing to draw a much thicker line between the private and the public sphere.

Where else could a head of state keep a second family on the go throughout his presidency without anyone finding out? François Mitterrand managed to pull that off for most of his period in office. 

Rumours about the affairs of his successor, Jacques Chirac, were never made public. He was even nicknamed "3-minutes-douche-comprise", literally "3-minutes-shower-included", according to his driver who wrote a book about their time together.

In 2007, the two main candidates in the presidential elections, Nicolas Sarkozy and his Socialist rival Ségolène Royal, both gave the impression they were in stable relationships. Yet within just six months of the polls closing, both had broken up with their partners.

So why the secrecy? Is it that French people just aren't interested in what their politicians get up to behind closed doors? 

Hortense Harang is a political consultant and heads up advisory firm Country Code. As a former journalist and a parliamentary candidate herself at one time, she has seen the issue from all sides. 

"I think religion lies at the heart of it," she says. "The big difference is that we're not protestant. It was always the way that the Catholic church hid what popes were up to from the general public. Back then, the elite was the clergy, now it's the politicians."

She also sees a big difference between how the French perceive the link between private and public behaviour. 

"In the Anglo-Saxon world the person is judged by how they behave in their private life. It's not like that in France. You can be one person at home and a different person in your public life."

"We have a schizophrenia. We don't think that because you cheat on your wife you will cheat on the republic. We just don't read as much into it." 

So, are French people less interested in what politicians get up to in private? More high-minded?

"French people don't care. We all like a good gossip, but it's no more than that," she says.

The French certainly like a gossip and the country has a good number of celebrity magazines, ranging from the long-running Paris Match to newer entrants like Closer, but they tend to show more interest in film stars and pop singers.

Harang also thinks the French media culture has a big influence.

"In France we don't have a tabloid press. Tabloids can be terrible but they can also be a good thing for democracy because they push the big, traditional media to do their job and investigate. The style of journalism in France is more editorial than investigative. We like to tell people what to think rather than really inquire into the facts."

Privacy in France is guaranteed by strict laws. Article 9 of the Civil Code says that “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private life.” Courts have interpreted this widely to include relationships, health issues and the publication of unauthorized photographs.

As elsewhere, there is a public interest defence in France which can be used when private matters have an impact on public behaviour. 

However, the likely expense of being on the wrong side of the law is a deterrent.

"Newspapers don't want to get into costly legal battles," says Harang. 

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in May on sexual assault charges brought private issues into the public sphere like never before in France. 

Just two days after the former IMF director and one-time presidential hopeful was arrested in New York, journalist Christophe Deloire wrote an article in daily newspaper Le Monde titled "The strange omerta of the media in the case of DSK."

In the article he said he was amazed a 2006 book he co-authored about politicians and sex, called "Sexus politicus", had not received more attention. In particular, one whole chapter was devoted to Strauss-Kahn and his womanizing. 

"The stories we told were not just about salon seduction,” he wrote. “The chapter led to intense pressure being put on us and our editor given the sensitive nature of the information.” 

Yet, despite the revelations, the French media was "more than discreet," in Deloire's words.

Strauss-Kahn eventually had all charges against him dropped. However, the affair brought out revelations that had not been seen before about a French politician. Some people even spoke of a pre and post-DSK era.

Now that the dust has settled, does the DSK affair mark a turning point in how the media reports politicians' private lives? Will French politicians be exposed to the type of scrutiny that their peers get in other countries?

"I don't think so," says Harang, with a shrug. "What might change is that politicians will just be more careful.”

twitter.com/matthew_warren

Matthew Warren (news.france@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
QUIZ: Find out how French you've become
So how French do you think you are? Photo: Frenchman: Shutterstock

QUIZ: Find out how French you've become

It's impossible to be an expat in France without turning a little bit French. Take our quiz and find out where you land on the Frenchiness scale. READ  

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder
Tired of bad customer service in France? Photo: Smiling worker: Shutterstock

French try to make surly shopkeepers kinder

Many Anglos have a dim view of customer service in France, but the French aren't happy either with how some shopkeepers treat them. Now a growing programme is labeling shopkeepers who you can expect to be friendly. READ  

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ
A massive fire cut broadcasting for many of France's public radio stations. Photo: France Bleu

Broadcasts cut as fire ravages French radio HQ

A massive fire ripped through the Paris building that houses studios for some of France's public radio stations, prompted broadcasts to be abruptly cut off. It's unclear what sparked the blaze. READ  

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France
A train and metro strike is set for Tuesday in France. Photo: AFP

Metro and Train strike set for Tuesday in France

Commuters should brace themselves for travel chaos next week, with a train and Metro strike set for Tuesday, according to AFP. But it's not clear yet how big of an industrial action it's going to be. READ  

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl
The teenager was told last week that she must pay back €10,000 in just 15 days. Euros: Shutterstock

France tries to collect €10k from fatherless girl

A 13-year-old girl in western France has been told she must pay back the €10,000 that was given to her by the state after her sailor father was killed in an accident. READ  

National Front pulls in 'record membership'
The National Front party has a total of 83,000 members – the highest number in the history of the party. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

National Front pulls in 'record membership'

After a year of unprecedented electoral success, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant, anti-EU National Front party is attracting more members than ever before in the 42-year-old party’s history, French media has reported. READ  

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'
Both men had been motivated by the actions of Mohamed Merah, a French-Algerian national killed by French police in March 2012 after murdering seven people. Photo: AFP

Merah-inspired jihadists 'plot attacks in France'

Morocco said on Thursday it has arrested two jihadists inspired by French terrorist Mohamed Merah who were planning to attack banks and multinational companies in France and in the North African country. READ  

Halloween in France
Paris Catacombs still draw thousands
A file picture shows skulls and bones stacked at the Catacombs of Paris. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP

Paris Catacombs still draw thousands

A place of fear, legend, inspiration and exploration, Paris's skull and bone-lined Catacombs still draw thousands of visitors each year, many of whom queue for hours to explore the ghoulish burial site. READ  

French to try out high-speed Ebola test
The trial will include a prototype device unveiled last week, similar to a home pregnancy test, that may make diagnosis possible in under 15 minutes. Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP

French to try out high-speed Ebola test

French researchers will conduct trials with prototype Ebola diagnostic tests in Guinea in November, with results expected within weeks for speedy deployment, the head of France's Ebola task force said on Thursday. READ  

Far-right mag's racial slur on minister nets fine
A racist magazine cover has resulted in a fine for a French publication. Photo: AFP

Far-right mag's racial slur on minister nets fine

A far-right publication that compared France's justice minister, who is black, to a monkey was hit on Thursday with a €10,000 fine for making racist statements. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles from British Airways
National
Eight Halloween events not to miss in Paris
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
International
'I love the UK, but I could die getting there': Struggles of Calais migrants
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
National
What are the pros and cons of working as an au pair in France?
Society
Is France's generous welfare state about to get a little stingier?
Gallery
Extraordinary images of ordinary life in the poor Paris suburbs
Gallery
10 things expats love and loathe about life in France
National
So why don't many women in France breastfeed?
National
'Stop bashing La Belle France' - French PM tells UK press
International
UK warns Brits of 'high threat' from terrorism' in France
National
VIDEO: 'The Kama Sutra is not a dirty little text'
National
What Rome could teach Paris and vice versa
Gallery
What do foreign countries warn their citizens about when visiting France?
Gallery
IN IMAGES: Eiffel Tower opens new glass floor above Paris
Society
Is it really better to grow old in the UK and the US rather than France?
Gallery
It's that time if the year again: French sportsmen reveal (almost) all
Gallery
So what do the French find really weird about Anglos?
Travel
Paris museums to open seven days a week but unions are not happy
Culture
Caption contest: What happened when Jay Z met Sark O?
International
This explains why the French never seem to get a sense of déjà vu?
National
VIDEO: Here's a view from the Eiffel Tower you haven't seen before
Travel
Do Paris's iconic rooftops deserve Unesco World Heritage status?
Opinion
'France cannot reform, the pilots' strike showed us this'
National
'We just don’t work hard enough in France.' Is that true?
International
France has moved to beef up security in various public places
National
Hiking naked in France does not come risk-free
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se