Sex, scandal and security in the underskirts of France: a case study
The saga of how French President Francois Hollande dismissed his partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, in favour of actress Julie Gayet gave a new and bizarre slant to extraordinary tales of sex, adultery and security practices in circles around the Elysee palace in the last 30 years.
In a novel, even in Hollywood, this burlesque drama of betrayal and histrionics would appear as unbelievable as did the DSK affair. That scandal forced Strauss-Kahn out of the top job at the IMF, ended his high chances of becoming French president, and opened the way for Hollande who promised to be a "normal" president.
A keynote press conference by Hollande to finesse the beginning of a U turn on policy and reforms to avert a threatening economic crisis, was over-shadowed by this controversy about his personal affairs: a demonstration that even in France the private lives of people in public life can, and should, be a matter of public interest as well as of interest to the public.
The accounts of Hollande's sexcapades by scooter raise many important questions concerning: security, the image of the presidency at home and of the prestige of France abroad, distraction from vital policy statements, standards in public and private life among the elites, the French law shielding much behaviour and peccadilloes from public scrutiny, and accountability in a democracy.
Previous controversies over concealment, or exceptional exposure, of personal matters of public interest come to mind. Here are just a few examples: Mitterrand and the cover-up of the cancer which ate away at him from his first election, the cover-up and costs to the state of his secret family, illegal phone tapping including tapes of the conversations of a prime minister's wife; Chirac and overnight absences which reportedly caused alarm at the Elysee when crises arose; Sarkozy and his turbulent personal life while president; and the affair in a New York hotel which brought out into the open the reputation of DSK and thus ended his trajectory towards the Elysee Palace.
Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner and mother of their four children stood as unsuccessful presidential candidate against Sarkozy in 2012 having discovered that Hollande was having an affair with Trierweiler, thereby sidelining Hollande who was the chief administrator of the Socialist party. When Royal revealed between the two rounds of the election that Hollande had left the family home, her campaign was seen widely as the revenge of a woman scorned.
In January 2014, one year before the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the big story was that Hollande, had now dismissed Trierweiler as his live-in companion, mistress or concubine in French parlance, at the Elysée Palace. Trierweiler had discovered through a magazine article that for months Hollande had been scooting off late at night to have an affair with an actress.
This scandal was essentially about an affair of "the heart" and no corruption was involved, although there were evident concerns, justified by the Islamic attacks, that the security forces had been lax in how they protected the president on his visits, and also in failing to check whether or not via the flat used there were any connections with underground personalities or with terrorists.
The affair was another blow to public respect in general for the French elites, and that overall respect has been badly tarnished also by a string of scandals of all types over many years, as Hollande himself warned in his statement on April 10, 2013 and as summarised elsewhere on this site (www.roderickdentrac.com).
Contrary to the impression given by some opinion polls that the French do not care about sexual adventures by the elite, consider such behaviour to be a private matter and even give an increased approval rating to adulterous married politicians, the French care greatly about the prestige and dignity of their institutions.
In any case attitudes are changing for several reasons, and there is increased demand for accountability and impatience with the convenience that privacy can guarantee protection from exposure.
Scandals, whether concerning sex or corruption, are regularly exposed in all democracies and sometimes in authoritarian regimes: they are not a French exception. However, an especial mix of factors lies behind the frequency, extravagance and sometimes ruthlessness of the French scandal.
Trierweiler, having hinted that she might vent her humiliation in a book, then did so, via a German publisher to avoid discovery and visits in the night to suppress publication. The book became an international best-seller, making her a millionnaire and wealthier than Hollande. A film is reportedly in preparation for release to coincide with the next presidential election.
In 2012, Sarkozy won against Royal, in part by organising a reconciliation with his then wife, who soon left the glamour of presidential life for a new lover and opening the way for Sarkozy to re-marry while in office.
I wrote Paris Night as a thriller; but also to give insights into this underside of France.
The moral and institutional crisis has been brewing for decades, and has its deepest roots in the framework for all-embracing social-welfare and employment protection policies drawn up under the aegis of the Resistance movements in 1944 and by De Gaulle. This post-war consensus on paternalistic, nationalistic and socialised frameworks in a long-gone social, industrial and economic context, adopted as a national totem despite deep party divisions, is coming to an end, years after other European countries have moved on into the post Berlin-Wall world of meritocracy and global opportunities.
Public and political culture is constrained by a hangover from the 1968 revolt by stidents and workers against institutions which preciptated the departure of General de Gaulle, and coincided paradoxically with the Prague Spring. The French Communist Party, which was directed from Moscow and once commanded about 22 percent of the vote, remains the only Communist Party in Europe which has not made a clean break with its past. This may be why its share of the vote has withered to just a few percentage points, to the benefit of other left-wing movements and the populist National Front, as the Socialists move slowly towards the right..
In the 1990s, reforms in Italy began with the "Clean-Hands" campaign by courageous magistrates against corruption, and notably corruption in public affairs. This was the starting point for a realisation among the public that the country had to climb away from institutional decay. The crisis which broke upon France on August 25 has prompted reflections along these lines. There is open comparison with the instability of the old Fourth Republic, instability which came close to provoking a military coup and culminating with the Return of De Gaulle and government by decree. There is talk also of a Sixth Republic, although there is little analysis of how a new constitution would differ from the old.
Political news up to 2015 was coloured by scandal after scandal. The headlines were then dominated by stories about terrorism and refugees; but unemployment, the parlous state of national finances and an emerging public demand for reform are bubbling in the backround as the next presidential election approaches.
The opposition right-wing and newly named Les Republicains Party, led by Sarkozy, which has its roots in Gaullism, is now almost as deeply riven as the Socialists and their left-wing allies. Both give the impression of being barely fit to govern. The third force, the far right nationalist National Front, is likely to be the main beneficiary, but is even less qualified to govern.
The FN is benefiting mainly from a breakdown of confidence in institutions.
Now Hollande himself has declared that the country is in a state of economic crisis in addition to the moral crisis and the “war” on terrorism.
Extracts from an emergency statement and press conference by President Francois Hollande on April 10, 2013 announcing laws to fight corruption in government and politics, tax evasion and money-laundering:
The statement uses extraordinarily strong terms to state bluntly that the state is in peril from a breach of confidence between people and government. This is an implicit reference to the “Golden Rule”.
Hollande, a Socialist president overseeing a Socialist administration, spoke in response to anger which threatens the government and is even raising calls for a new Republic. The fuse that blew open public outrage at years of scandals and corruption in high places was lit by an investigation by an on-line newspaper, Mediapart, revealing tax evasion and money-laundering through secret accounts abroad by the Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac.
The minister, once a surgeon, then mayor of a provincial town, was number two in the finance ministry, responsible for enacting highly controversial cuts in spending and increases in taxes, and in charge of an onslaught against tax evasion. He was forced to resign on being put under judicial investigation in March, and then forced to admit the facts at the beginning of April, having denied the allegations before parliament for four months.
Now in disgrace and lying low, he has become the symbol of rot in the system, the man in the stocks, the whipping boy, the target and focus of a public perception that illicit actions, lies and corruption have for long been endemic at the top and also in local government.
In the statement, Hollande uses the word “affaire” in the specific sense of scandals which tarnish the state, government, administrations and institutions, and of abuses in business and finance which undermine public confidence in the Republic.
He also uses the verb “altérer”, which means to adulterate, or break up, rot, or decay, and in a context of political and moral crisis implies a process of decadence.
The President begins by saying that “every lesson must be drawn from the Cahuzac ‘affaire’, a scandal coming after years of scandals which have besmirched the conduct of public affairs.”
He says: “The latest case reveals yet again the need for a relentless battle against the ruinous excesses of money, cupidity and occult activities by high finance. Strong action must be taken and the French people themselves are demanding this.
“Because the Republic must be irreproachable if it is to have any authority.”
He concludes his statement with this declaration: “I fully understand the gravity of what has been discovered. I know how much the French people want to see a break away from this grim stream of affaires which is now wrecking the standing of the Republic, of our country and of the way our political system works, for which I have great respect.”
Hollande says that among the measures he is announcing will be action “to strengthen the independence of the judicial system … and also the protection of sources used by journalists – because fortunately the press has done its job.”
He says: “This is in the interest of everyone: of all those who governed yesterday, who govern today and who will be called to govern tomorrow. It is in the interest of France because we must be irreproachable...”
Questions follow: The first notes that even some ministers and people on the left of French politics are concerned that the country is heading into a climate of denunciation and of inquisition by tax officials and the media.
The President replies: “The biggest risk would be to do nothing, for matters to remain opaque in a climate of suspicion, suspicion arising out of good faith or bad faith.” He adds that he has judged all the risks and has determined that changes must be made “so that the French people have confidence.”
Answering questions about hostility by ministers in the government towards his policies to reform the budget, restructure the economy and avert economic crisis, Hollande declares: “This policy has been put in place. I shall not change it.”
He concludes the press conference with these words:
“But I also want to leave reforms which will have enabled the French people to renew a link, their confidence in those who represent them. Because if the Republic is weakened, if ministers are suspected, then the Republic itself is threatened. We are at risk, we are in peril. I see this not only in France; we see it everywhere in Europe.”