• 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@thelocal.fr)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
IN IMAGES: Paris protest in support of Palestinians
Members of a Jewish anti-zionist group joined protesters on Wednesday to call for an end to Israel's offensive in Gaza. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard

IN IMAGES: Paris protest in support of Palestinians

Up to 25,000 demonstrators marched through the streets of Paris on Wednesday to protest against the Israeli offensive in Gaza. Here's a selection of images from the rally, that took place amid tight security. READ  

UBS bank 'charged with tax fraud' in France
UBS bank has been charged with tax fraud in France, sources say, for helping French nationals hide money in Swiss accounts. Photo: AFP

UBS bank 'charged with tax fraud' in France

Swiss bank UBS was on Wednesday charged with tax fraud in Paris for allegedly helping rich French clients to hide money in Switzerland, a judicial source said. READ  

Paris: Thousands march in pro-Palestinian demo
Thousands of protesters hit the streets of Paris to oppose Israel's Gaza incursion. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP

Paris: Thousands march in pro-Palestinian demo

Thousands marched through Paris on Wednesday to denounce Israel's ongoing assault on Gaza amid tight security. The demo passed off peacefully with many protesters expressing their anger with the French government for not doing enough to halt the bloodshed in the Middle East. READ  

Lawmakers back redrawn map of France
French lawmakers have approved a redrawn map of France. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Lawmakers back redrawn map of France

Legislation that would redraw the map of France won overwhelming support on Wednesday from the country's lower house, the National Assembly. It's part of a plan reduce France's costly and cumbersome bureaucracy. READ  

Paris: Security beefed up for pro-Palestinian demo
Riot police will be out in force on Wednesday for the pro-Palestinian protest. Photo: Pierre Andrieu/AFP

Paris: Security beefed up for pro-Palestinian demo

Police chiefs in Paris are taking no chances on Wednesday with the latest pro-Palestinian rally taking place in the city. Hundreds of police are on duty to keep the peace. The Local will be tweeting live from the demo. READ  

Tête-à-tête - Part 1
'Foreigners in France should not get the vote'
Should foreigners be able to vote in France's local elections? Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP

'Foreigners in France should not get the vote'

France's president reignited an age-old row recently when he vowed to fight to give foreigners the vote in France. In the first part of our tête-a-tête we hear from a French mayor; who says France would be abandoning part of its sovereignty if foreigners were able to cast ballots. READ  

'Disastrous' economy claim riles Hollande
French business leader Pierre Gattaz's glare at the French president tells a story. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/AFP

'Disastrous' economy claim riles Hollande

French president François Hollande has taken umbrage after the leading voice of France’s business community described the country’s economy as “disastrous” this week and called for an end to the flagship 35-hour week and 75 percent tax rate. READ  

Tour de France stage 17: Pole Rafal Majka wins
Stage 17 of the Tour de France will see some tought climbs for the riders. Photo: Screengrab LeTour.fr

Tour de France stage 17: Pole Rafal Majka wins

Stage 17 of the 2014 Tour de France was won by Rafal Majka on Wednesday after 124.5km punishing ride through the Pyrenees. Yellow jersey holder Vincenzo Nibali extended his lead over his rivals. READ  

Immigration system
French test plan for long-term visa applicants
Anyone seeking a long-term visa in France in future will have to swat up on their French. Photo: Tim Green/Flickr

French test plan for long-term visa applicants

New legislation unveiled on Wednesday aims to shrink the bureaucratic hurdles foreigners who want to stay in France face and provide a glimmer of hope for asylum seekers languishing in limbo. But anyone wanting to get a ten-year visa would need to be able to read French. READ  

EU says Ryanair owes France €9.6 million
Ryanair has been ordered to refund millions in subsidies to local French authorities. Photo: Paolo Margari/Flickr

EU says Ryanair owes France €9.6 million

Low-cost airline Ryanair received nearly €10 million in illegal government aid and now must pay the money back, the European Commission said on Wednesday. It's another costly blow for Ryanair after a French court ordered it to stump up €9million in damages last year. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
VIDEO: Stuntman jumps onto a moving Paris metro... and survives
Gallery
Forget 'faire l'amour', here's 15 top French expressions for making love
National
Report - 'Anti-Semitic' riots in France: 'We may leave for Israel'
National
IN IMAGES: Two Paris anti-Israel demos descend into violence
National
Paris Plages: Here's 10 reasons to head down to the city beach
International
'Mont Blanc is like Disneyland. It's time to end the free-for-all'
Travel
Fancy climbing Mont Blanc? Here's 10 reasons to think twice about it
Travel
Sun's up: Temperatures in parts of France could hit 40°C
National
VIDEO: Jewish 'ultras' and anti-Israel mob in running street battle in Paris
International
Middle East crisis: 'Jews in France are stand-ins for Israeli targets'
Culture
IN PICTURES: Bastille Day fireworks mark centenary of the 'Great War'
Gallery
Looking for a weird museum in Paris? Here's 10 that are worth a visit
National
Clear your head: Eight tips for buying wine in a French supermarket
National
'Don't blame the labour market for France's unemployment woes!'
National
Job applicants in France: Be prepared to send in an anonymous CV
Sport
'I've never seen scenes like it' - Tour de France winner on the UK crowds
Sport
'Bouligans' to booze bans: Ten things you need to know about pétanque
Gallery
Driving in France: How to stay out of trouble on the roads
Travel
Ten essential free phone apps for a visit to Paris
Gallery
Like cycling? Love France? See the top ten best cycling routes in France
International
'They think beer is a vegetable': What the French really think of Germans
National
Sarkozy's dream of a 2017 comeback is not dead yet
Gallery
Ten reasons why France is better than Germany (we're not talking football)
Sponsored Article
CurrencyFair: Why it pays when making overseas transfers
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