All the Presidents’ (wo)men

Presidents of France

François Hollande, the self-proclaimed “Président Normal” of irreproachable morals, was unlikely to be overly concerned when Closer magazine recently alleged his romantic affair with actress Julie Gayet. His bigger concern was likely to have been the effect on his relationship with his live-in girlfriend and stand-in First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler. French politicians – even those occupying the highest office – have a long history of philandering that has rarely harmed their popularity and in some cases even enhanced it.

President Félix Faure famously died while making love to his mistress in 1895. Much later, his namesake, National Assembly speaker Edgar Faure, had a secret door installed in the official speaker’s residence at Hôtel de Lassay, which he used to conceal his liaisons. Faure died in 1988.

Few countries protect a person’s right to privacy as completely as France but has this latest revelation finally broken the barrier between French political figures and the public’s “right to know”? The press is restricted both by privacy laws and a complaisant understanding dating back to 1968, a few months before Georges Pompidou replaced Charles de Gaulle as president.

Pompidou was believed to have been accessory to an affair that resulted in the murder of professional bodyguard Stevan Markovic, who was thought to hold photographic proof that high-ranking political figures participated in sexual orgies organised by the Secret Service agent François Marcantoni. The press remained discrete about the scandal and once in the Presidential Palace, Pompidou fired Marcantoni and any other Secret Service agents linked to possible knowledge of the affair. The orgy allegations were never conclusively proven.

Strait-laced president Giscard d’Estaing, who succeeded Pompidou, acquired a reputation as a serial seducer and was once involved in an early morning traffic accident while driving Roger Vadim’s Ferrari back from an all-night “rendezvous galant”. No journalist thought it wise to dig for details and the incident was quickly sidelined, but again credible and widely believed.

No French president benefited from press discretion as much as François Mitterrand. Married to his loyal wife Danielle, in 1974 Mitterrand fathered a daughter – Mazarine – with Musée d’Orsay curator, Anne Pingeot. During his presidency he was regularly seen dining with his daughter in Parisian restaurants and he openly followed her life and education with pride and fatherly interest while the press kept their distance. Mazarine and Anne Pingeot stood alongside Danielle Mitterrand and her children at the former president’s funeral in January 1994. The French public were indifferent.

Perhaps the randiest (and quickest) French president was Jacques Chirac, dubbed “monsieur five minutes including a shower” by his entourage. His wife Bernadette made no secret of her ongoing jealously in a candid 2001 interview with television journalist Patrick de Carolis. Admitting that her husband indeed liked the ladies and had enough charm for them to like him back, she also confided that he never failed to return to the marital fold.

Closer has flouted French privacy laws previously in shrewdly calculated exposés, including the initial 2007 liaison between Hollande and Trierweiler when he was still in a relationship with Ségolene Royal, the mother of his four children. Closer was also the first to expose Nicolas Sarkozy’s budding affair with Carla Bruni and the only French publication to print the illicit photos of a topless Duchess of Cambridge on holiday in France with Prince William.

By ignoring Hollande’s legitimate right to a personal life, Closer took a legal risk but also made a financial calculation. French courts condemn invasion of privacy with notoriously low fines that are usually well covered by greatly increased circulation. Copies of the latest incriminating issue sold out quickly and circulation rose by 50% to 600,000 while traffic to Closer’s internet site doubled within a few hours.

Tradition has a way of eroding over the years and the French are now beginning to wonder whether their traditional privacy laws really should be applied to the taxpayer-funded public figures who put themselves forward as moral and exemplary leaders. Public reaction to the Hollande-Gayet affair could well be a salutary nail in the coffin of obligatory press discretion regarding the French political class. But even if the “right to know” changes, the question remains: is there a want to know?

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