François Hollande’s Affair: Scandal Reveals a Changing France

A French magazine's exposé into the French President's love-life marks a departure from the country's previous nonchalance over the peccadilloes of its premiers

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Yoan Valat / Christophe Karaba / EPA

A combo photograph showing a picture taken in Paris, 18 August 2013, of French President Francois Hollande, left, and a picture taken in Cannes, 18 May 2011, of French actress Julie Gayet.

The esteem reserved for the right to privacy in France is perhaps best expressed by an old French proverb: “In order to live happily, live hidden.” For generations, this was more than a cheeky excuse for the French to keep their dirty secrets. It was more like a national philosophy, part of a culture that elevated infidelity to an element of style. But in the Internet age, that philosophy has begun to seem a bit naïve, as national traditions of tact and good taste tend to get steamrolled these days by the universal laws of curiosity. France is no longer an exception.

On Friday, French President Francois Hollande learned that the hard way after a gossip magazine published evidence of his affair with a movie actress named Julie Gayet. The report went viral with all the merciless speed of the Web, making Hollande’s chest-thumping demands for privacy seem about as quaint as a Parisian organ grinder with a monkey on his shoulder.

Technically, though, French law was on his side. Legal restrictions on snooping in France are some of the harshest in the world, imposing major fines and even a possible jail term on newspaper editors who expose the private lives of citizens. As the scandal spread, Hollande invoked those laws on Friday by threatening to sue the French magazine Closer for invading his privacy. “A terrible mistake,” says Yair Cohen, a lawyer whose London-based firm, Cohen Davis Solicitors, specializes in stopping the viral spread of defamatory information.

Even a few years ago, Cohen says, it would have been possible to get a court judgement that would apply pressure on newspapers and other traditional outlets, forcing them to pull stories that were harmful to a politician’s reputation. “Now it is pretty much impossible,” he says. The work of spreading information has shifted mostly to blogs and social networks—“websites that are beyond the jurisdiction of the courts,” says Cohen.

For France, the clearest lesson on this score came in 2012, when Closer published topless photos of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, holidaying at a French château. Using local privacy laws to stem the spread of those photos proved pointless, even counter-productive, as it only drew more attention to them online, says Cohen. “The palace at the time didn’t realize that things have moved on, that there is nothing to be gained from threatening to sue.”

The other milestone for privacy and politics in France was the previous presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, whose divorce with his second wife and subsequent marriage with a third, the singer and fashion model Carla Bruni, played out like a soap opera in the French media in 2007 and 2008. “That really opened the flood gates,” says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a political commentator in Paris and the former editor of a French tabloid. Before Sarkozy, “there was a sort of gentleman’s code most of the time not to publish politician’s private affairs, and then Sarkozy put his own private life on the stage,” says Moutet.

So when Hollande tried to turn back the tide on Friday by claiming the right to privacy, he got little sympathy from the curious public. Not that he had much of it to lose. With the economy in the pits, Hollande’s approval ratings are the lowest of any President in modern French history, sinking in a recent poll to just 15%. But when Closer conducted its own survey on Friday, 78% out of nearly 32,000 respondents said that the news of his affair could only harm his credibility further.

That was a far cry from the France of Jacques Chirac, the former President (1995-2007) whose numerous affairs only seemed to improve his standing among the public; the same was true for François Mitterrand, President of France from 1981-1995. Perhaps if Hollande had some of Chirac’s famous swagger, or indeed his popularity, he may have come out of this affair on top. “But that ship has sailed,” says Moutet. “In the age of Twitter and Facebook, French politicians are going to be like politicians in every Western country now.” So much for living hidden.

(VIDEO: Francois Hollande Threatens To Sue Over Affair Claims)