Skip to main content

Can France handle truth on sex lives of rich and powerful?

By Philippe Coste, Special to CNN
updated 1:15 PM EDT, Wed June 27, 2012
Former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn no longer enjoys the level of privacy that he used to.
Former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn no longer enjoys the level of privacy that he used to.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philippe Coste: The DSK cases have given the press the chance to question the powerful
  • The most powerful in society used to enjoy silence and immunity, he says
  • He says DSK's demise in France could be seen as symbolic of a new era of openness
  • Coste: Despite the current publishing frenzy, most people would rather know less

Editor's note: Philippe Coste is the staff New York correspondent for the weekly L'Express. He also writes a blog on "lexpress.fr." His book, recently published in France, is about populism and the American justice system: "Quand la justice dérape" "When Justice goes off track."

(CNN) -- More than ever, the French are thinking and hearing about sex. Sex in high places, for a change. The thick wall that separated the public and private lives of our ruling elite and kept their backstage manners out of the headlines is now crumbling at a fast pace. And the Dominique Strauss-Kahn earthquake has a lot to do with it.

Two criminal cases against the former director of the International Monetary Fund, one closed in New York, the other still pending in northern France after his indictment for alleged promotion of prostitution, have given the press more than an opportunity, a civic obligation to tip-toe around our strict privacy laws and question, for the first time, their cozy gentleman's agreement with the powerful. Now what?

Philippe Coste
Philippe Coste

Things are changing. Today, Jean Quatremer, a journalist at the daily Liberation, tells in his new book how, nearly four years ago, he got the scoop about the opening of an internal investigation at the IMF on DSK's relationship with a subordinate; and how his editors of the time killed the story. (The Wall Street Journal finally got the tip).

Until this year, also, excellent journalists at Le Monde like Raphael Bacqué and Ariane Chemin would not have found a publisher willing to release their own book, "Les Strauss-Kahn," a chronicle of the life of DSK and his famous journalist wife Anne Sinclair. Now a best-seller, their investigation certainly describes numerous flavors of Strauss-Kahn's behavior. But it deals more with another relationship, the bizarre ménage à trois between the elite circles, French citizens and the truth.

In France, centuries of feudal privileges did not disappear at the birth of the Fifth Republic. In the last 40 years, most privacy laws were created not by the demand of citizens fearing the Big Brother state, but rather by the political class itself, to keep its safe distance from the electorate. And self-censorship ruled.

In a recent documentary (about DSK) a French media critic recalled the time when, as a rookie in 1982, he asked a seasoned correspondent at the Elysée what President Mitterrand did after work. The answer came, in a blasé voice that hinted at a banal routine: "He leaves his office around 6:30. Then, he just spends the evening with his second family." This fact was made public only in 1994, when Mitterrand gave a green light for a cover picture in Paris Match showing his beloved daughter with him. Just over a year later, she was at his funeral with her mother, an act of public regal recognition that moved the nation.

Strauss-Kahn, like other avatars of the system, reveled in his own kind of aristocratic and exclusive playground. Silence and immunity became the measure, the flattering reflection of his growing power and nobility.

His demise in France could be seen as the symbolic start of a new era of openness, but we are still in an awkward transition period, where the French public opinion is trying hard to find its mark.

More legal woes for Strauss-Kahn
Defining moments of Strauss-Kahn scandal

Until Nicolas Sarkozy, no president had ever divorced, out of fear it would irritate the shrinking number of Roman Catholics in the electorate, or open a Pandora's Box of distasteful revelations; but sexual morality has never been a reliable electoral criterion.

Rumors on the internet have upstaged uncertain values, fed cynicism and the rise of populist movements, a blanket ideology of the "Tous Pourris" (they are all rotten) at the core of the extreme right-wing psyche.

But in the current confusion, many French would prefer to maintain good old privacy, especially in its male-friendly version. During the Strauss-Kahn epic, for example, women who dared to connect the dots between his character flaws and eligibility for office, saying they would not vote for a misogynist, were often ridiculed as nuns or man-haters.

Most people, in spite of the current publishing frenzy, would rather know less, and keep power on its safe pedestal. That trend started before Strauss-Kahn, when Sarkozy, dumped by his second wife right after his election in 2007, had to become the president next door, and rebuild his life "live" with glamorous Carla Bruni. Ironically, for acting like a mere mortal, be it on prime time, in luxurious and idyllic conditions, he was accused of desecrating the presidency : Too visible, too "bling bling," too out of touch.

His successor, François Hollande, won as "Mr Normal." But his life is far from uneventful. His separation with his companion Segolène Royal, a prominent socialist, a former presidential candidate and mother of his four children, totally disturbed their party in 2007.

His flame ever since, now the First Lady, named Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist, is still so consumed by jealousy that she tweeted her support for Segolène's political opponent during the last parliamentary elections. Her move, a cyber-age rendition of 18th century boudoir warfare, openly contributed to the defeat of her nemesis, ruining her chances to become the President of the Assemblée Nationale. The truth is out now, but it is not certain the French like it that way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Coste.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT