Hollande has a right to a private life, but the point is that the most powerful politician in France lied, says Stephen Glover.
President Francois Hollande is outraged by the publication of photographs in a French magazine of his nocturnal visits to his mistress, the film star Julie Gayet. He is threatening to sue Closer under France’s draconian privacy laws.
His colleagues in the Socialist Party are also spluttering and muttering. Indeed, much of the French political class thinks the magazine has crossed a dangerous line in a country in which the sexual shenanigans of leading politicians are normally off-limits.
Meanwhile, many French people are said to believe that the President’s sexual adventures are not their business, though their lofty unconcern does not stop them being gripped by the story of Mr Hollande’s infidelity to his widely loathed partner Valerie Trierweiler.
It all goes to show that France is a very different country. Who can doubt that if a British prime minister with an official partner on the public payroll (Ms Trierweiler’s position) was photographed prowling the streets of London in search of his mistress, he would find it very hard to hang on to his job?
Britain may have a privacy law interpreted by judges in an increasingly restrictive way. The British Press may be threatened with tougher regulations. Even so, I suggest that nine people out of ten in this country won’t agree that President Hollande’s privacy has been inexcusably invaded.
That said, there may be many in our political establishment who will look enviously at France, and wish that they were allowed to carry on as French politicians traditionally have been.
The point is that the most powerful politician in France has lied. He lied to Valerie Trierweiler, who reportedly collapsed and was rushed to hospital when she heard what her partner had done, though of course it is possible that she has been playing to the gallery.
He also lied to, or at any rate misled, the French people in pretending that he had a relationship with Ms Trierweiler which justified her having a staff of five at the Elysee Palace, rooms and innumerable substantial perks, and being called “the First Lady”.
In order to defend publication of the story, some people have pointed out that for security reasons it is not a very good idea to have the President of the Republic racing around the streets of Paris on a scooter with a sole bodyguard. A reasonable point.
Equally reasonably, it has been suggested that attending to Julie Gayet in addition to his other duties of a similar nature may have tired him out. He is, by general agreement, a rotten President, and he might have conceivably been less hapless if he had been tucked up in bed at an early hour with a cup of cocoa instead of exerting himself with Ms Gayet.
But even if there were no security issues, and even if he were the most successful President in the history of modern France rather than the most ineffectual, the point would stand that he has been guilty of deception.
He knew this, of course, which is why he emerged from Ms Gayet’s apartment with his crash helmet firmly in place by way of disguise, looking like a diminutive crook (he is 5ft 6in tall) in a low-budget French gangster film.
This is not the first time Mr Hollande has “pulled the wool”. In the 2007 presidential elections, Segolene Royal, his common-law partner of 30 years and mother of his four children, was the Socialist Party candidate. They presented themselves to the French public as a happy couple, though Mr Hollande had left her two years earlier for Valerie Trierweiler.
The French Press was well aware of this state of affairs, but did not think it necessary to inform readers. Segolene Royal’s ill-starred candidacy may have been motivated by a sense of vengeance against her ex-partner. The French people, though, were not allowed to judge. A month after the election, which she lost to the unprepossessing Nicolas Sarkozy, she and Mr Hollande formally separated.
Ironically, Mr Hollande would never have been chosen as the Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential elections if the leading contender had not been caught up in a sex scandal of his own. After Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of raping a maid in a New York hotel (the case was dropped, and Strauss-Kahn came to a financial arrangement with the maid) another accusation of rape, and charges of pimping, were made against him.
Perhaps the French electorate doesn’t mind being deceived. It’s not for us to tell it what to do. But I submit that the readiness of many French people to tolerate what we coarse Anglo-Saxons would call sexual impropriety, and the reluctance of the French Press to write about it, help to explain why France has a more corrupt political class than we do.
Of course, a politician who cheats on his wife or partner may not cheat on the electorate. The late former Labour Foreign Secretary Robin Cook was famously forced by Alastair Campbell when at Heathrow Airport to choose between his wife and his mistress, and plumped for the mistress. I know of no evidence that Mr Cook was less trustworthy than his monogamous ministerial colleagues.
But sexual deception and financial corruption sometimes lurk together in the same unobserved political corner. The best recent example in France is that of Francois Mitterrand, President from 1981 to 1995, who secretly kept a mistress by whom he had a daughter. This was known to the French media, which only told the truth shortly before his death.
Mitterrand’s time in office was disfigured by several financial scandals, not least those involving his son and sometime adviser, Jean-Christophe. These would have almost certainly come to light much earlier if the French Press, partly deterred by tough privacy laws, had not been looking the other way.
Unexamined over their sexual peccadillos, many French politicians apparently feel free to indulge in financial corruption. Mitterrand’s successor, Jacques Chirac, was found guilty by a Paris court after leaving office of diverting public funds and abusing public confidence, and received a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Nicolas Sarkozy, though recently cleared of corruption charges, still faces investigation over alleged illegal campaign funding. As to recent former prime ministers, Alain Juppé was convicted of mishandling funds in 2004, and Pierre Bérégovoy shot himself in 1993 while under investigation over a large interest-free loan obtained from a businessman and close friend.
We don’t have to look to France to find a sexual scandal involving a leading politician which conceals another sort of scandal. We would have never known that former Lib Dem Cabinet minister Christopher Huhne had illegally passed on penalty points to his wife Vicky had his sexual liaison with his assistant Carina Trimingham not been revealed.
Now it emerges that President Hollande’s “love nest” is registered to a convicted criminal with mafia links. Naturally, I don’t accuse him of any financial improprieties, but it seems he may have questions to answer. The same apartment may have been used for private business by philandering ex-presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Jacques Chirac. Does it go with the office?
Francois Hollande has a right to a private life. But as a man with enormous power he should not be allowed to conceal his deceptions. In a democracy we have the right to be informed so that we can make a judgment about the politicians who presume to rule us.
If the French don’t mind that their President is a liar, that is their choice. But I value the British tradition of openness. I also recognise that there are many in our ruling class who yearn for us to be more like the French.