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'French media must grill Hollande over this farce'

Ben McPartland · 14 Jan 2014, 12:45

Published: 14 Jan 2014 08:59 GMT+01:00
Updated: 14 Jan 2014 12:45 GMT+01:00

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Just days after news of Hollande's alleged affair with a French actress made headlines around the world, French president François Hollande faces the prospect of a daunting press conference in front of hundreds of journalists on Tuesday.

He had hoped to present his new policies and ideas for 2014 but it is his private life that everyone is talking about.

Whereas previous French presidents have been known to have had affairs, the sordid details were never made public.

But now with Hollande's partner Valérie Trierweiler in hospital, pressure is on Hollande to go public about his private life. Professor Matthew Fraser, from the American University of Paris, a former journalist and author, argues the French media must break with tradition and ask the questions, because the public has a right to know about their head of state.

Matthew Fraser: “The press conference will be a litmus test. These presidential rituals in France are usually quite deferential, they’re not at all like the American president getting hit with tough questions. This time will French journalists dare to stand up and ask hard questions? Hollande will try to pre-empt and foreclose attempts to probe for details. My guess is that he’ll say something like he is a 'normal' person, like ordinary French citizens, and that his life goes through the same ups and downs. The reality is that he’s not a 'normal' person, he’s the head of state. 

“Hollande looks like a hypocrite because, when he was running for the presidency, he promised to be exemplary in office — in contrast, of course, to his opponent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose personal life and style were severely criticized in the French media. Now it looks like Hollande’s personal life is even more questionable than Sarkozy’s. Here is a French president who was allegedly zipping through the streets of Paris on a scooter for furtive assignations with his actress mistress. And what about the police vehicles stationed outside the apartment - who is paying for them? Taxpayers, presumably. It’s a very costly Feydeau farce.”

“Generally speaking, in the Anglo-Saxon world the press take the view that public virtue can’t come without private virtue. Politicians are held to that test. The French don’t understand this essentially Protestant notion of public and private virtue. In France, a Catholic culture with a deep cynicism in the national psyche, the press separate the two. Private vices are considered irrelevant to public virtue.  

"That, in any case, is the rationale the French press use for justifying their tradition of silence on the shenanigans and turpitudes of politicians. In truth, there is a long tradition of complicity between the media in France and the political elite. It’s very peculiar to the Fifth Republic, which is a sort of Bonapartist regime of power invested in one person. That’s what we’ve seen over the last 50 years. De Gaulle’s personal life was not particularly colourful, but Giscard d’Estaing, [François] Mitterrand and [Jacques] Chirac enjoyed a tremendous degree of media omerta on their personal lives. French journalists knew about their sexual affairs — sometimes involving attractive journalists -- but never wrote anything. 

“In France the crony culture between politicians and journalists has deep roots. They attend the same universities, notably Sciences Po, and frequent the same Parisian dinner parties. Twenty years ago, when François Mitterrand gave his annual Bastille Day television interview, he was interviewed by two famous TV  journalists, Anne Sinclair and Christine Ockrent — both of whom were married to cabinet ministers in Mitterrand’s government. No one said anything about this, not a single newspaper column pointing out the fact. It was like the court of Louix XIV.

“The French media don’t have an adversarial culture like in Britain or the US, where although journalists can be chummy with politicians, when push comes to shove they know what their job is. They will ask the tough questions. And politicians know it. In France it has been the opposite. Journalists are exceedingly deferential, and politicians expect the deference. That is changing of course, especially with the pressure of the Internet, social media, and a growing Anglo-Saxon influence on the French media culture. French journalists are in denial about it, but it’s happening.” 

Not everyone in France agrees with the likes of Fraser, not least French journalists and politicians themselves. To read the opposing view in the second part of this week's tête-a-tête click on the link below.

Story continues below…

'Hollande's private life is not an issue for France'

Matthew Fraser is a lecturer at Sciences Po and the American University of Paris, where he teaches courses on politics and the media. He is also an author with his latest book 'Home Again in Paris: Oscar, Leo and Me', that follows his readjustment to Paris after spending nearly two decades away. For more information on Matthew Fraser and his new book, you can CLICK HERE. Or follow him on Twitter @frasermatthew

Ben McPartland (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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