The after-shocks of the rape charges against ex-IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn in the U.S. seem to be eroding France’s unwritten media rule against publicly delving into the private sexual affairs of national politicians. This week, the press has paid rapt attention to allegations of criminal sexual behavior by two French political heavyweights. After the enormous coverage that followed Sunday’s resignation of a cabinet member accused of having forced two women into unwanted sex, the French media is now agog over statements by a former minister claiming an unnamed political figure had been caught “in an orgy with little boys.” All the country needs now to bury its sexual-antics-of-pols-are-off-limits rule for good is a “Weinergate” à la française.
The current sex-meets-politics frenzy grew from comments by former conservative Education Minister Luc Ferry during a chat show Monday night on pay TV channel Canal Plus. As discussion advanced on whether, in hindsight, French media had erred in remaining silent about Strauss-Kahn’s well-known sexual impulsiveness on the belief that was a private matter, Ferry illustrated other instances of hushed-up scandals involving politicians by recalling “a former minister who was busted in Marrakech in an orgy with little boys.” Ferry refused to reveal the identity of the purported culprit, saying he lacked sufficient evidence to protect himself from retaliatory libel charges. However, Ferry did note he’d been briefed about the case “by high authorities of the state” at the time—notably the Prime Minister. He also said other ranking officials had briefed him on the case, but without providing proof beyond their own descriptions of it.
Evidence or not, Ferry will soon be asked to identify the former cabinet member referred to when he’s called in to answer questions in a preliminary investigation French prosecutors opened June 1. That may only be the first of its kind. Two Moroccan associations defending children have also filed complaints, and are asking for an official inquiry to be launched in Morocco as well. In media appearances since his thunder-clap Monday, Ferry (an author and philosopher by trade) has down-shifted a bit by refusing to comment further about the case, explaining “when you don’t have proof, you shut your trap”. Yet at the same time, Ferry has congratulated himself for having quit what he called the “waltz of hypocrites” by going public with as much of the story many other people are also aware of, and with as much detail as he considered legally prudent.
Anecdotes about a well known, formerly popular political figure’s penchant for young boys—and his alleged run-in with the law in Morocco as he engaged in pedophile acts—have been murmured about by politicians, government advisers, and journalists for nearly two decades. Due to their collective discretion, when Ferry commented on the allegations in public elements of France’s media establishment began attacking him from two opposing directions: One camp faulted him for dishing up old scuttlebutt as fact without evidence to prove the charge; the other whacked him for not saying more about whatever he knows of the case—even if that isn’t enough to fully, factually substantiate it.
Ferry’s retort is to the point: if the pedophile rumor is so old, familiar, and characteristic of the alleged political perpetrator, why hasn’t the French media dug deep into it during all these years to uncover facts (or determine there aren’t any)? The question is especially pertinent since the purported acts involved don’t qualify as private sexual relations, but are instead crimes against children. Meanwhile, if Ferry was so offside in bringing the charges up in public, why has every single media outlet followed suit by going bonkers covering his claims, and the many angles of debate they’ve unleashed? After all, rules, principles, and professional codes of conduct are either respected or they aren’t, and can’t be universally abandoned because a public figure—not a fellow journalist—appears to flaunt them.
The answer, of course is that celebrity, sex and controversy sell—no matter how dark and troubling the details may be. Because of that, no media (French or foreign) will ignore steamy revelations or charges against public figures once they’ve become public, whether they’re private personal matters or violations of law. That was the case with DSK and Arnold Schwartzenegger, and is now true with the unnamed French politician and France’s former junior civil service minister Georges Tron—who even after his resignation Sunday remains the focus of French media attention about whether he did or didn’t sexually harass and abuse women as charged. Wherever he is, France’s version of Anthony Weiner should already be shaking in his shorts.
Still, in the hopes of defending the old order, some of France’s traditionalist pundits continue stressing the considerable difference between respecting the privacy of public figures—no matter how wild or objectionable their penchants may strike some people—and responsibly reporting that behavior when it crosses criminal lines, or otherwise becomes worthy of public scrutiny. Fair enough, those lines–and the social sensibilities they reflect–do exist. But attention generated by the Strauss-Kahn and Ferry controversies find those boundaries not only blurring, but even being trampled by French reporters and editors unwilling to be left out of a hot story that rivals (whether in France or abroad) are no longer hesitating to jump on. And that evolution has only just begun.
For a while, the inertia of custom will cause many members of the French press to wrinkle their noses at media invasion of the private lives of pols. Others will oppose that increased encroachment as evidence of the spreading influence of puerile American Puritanism, or the nothing-is-sacred-in-scandal ethos of British papers undermining France’s more adult media attitudes. But such rear-guard action will fail to preserve France’s unwritten media rule that’s already fading away.
Like it or not, the French media are now delving into the private lives of authorities already besieged by wider scandal, and that will eventually lead to journalists honing in on the dalliances, adventurism, or sexual aggression of politicians they deem worthy of making news on their own accord. Sooner or later, even in France, the chicken of sexual controversy will be hatched from the eggs of questionable private libidinous behavior revealed first by the French press, and not the other way around.