Skip to main content

Alleged Hollande affair shows 'old rules no longer apply'

By Matthew Fraser, media commentator, Special to CNN
updated 1:16 PM EST, Mon January 13, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Closer magazine has alleged Hollande is having an affair with actress Julie Gayet
  • Hollande, who was elected President in 2012, lives with partner Valerie Trierweiler
  • Matthew Fraser says a media omerta that protected politicians' private lives is ending
  • And he says French privacy laws are increasingly irrelevant in the social media world

Editor's note: Matthew Fraser is a professor at the American University of Paris and lecturer at Sciences Po Paris. His most recent book, "Home Again in Paris: Oscar, Leo and Me" can be found at his author site. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- At first blush, Francois Hollande seems comically ill-suited in the role as ardent seducer of fetching actresses. And in many respects the astonishing allegations of his secret love trysts are like the improbable plot of a door-slamming French farce.

Hollande's alleged sexual escapades, revealed by the gossip magazine "Closer," are buzzing through the French media and burning up Twitter streams gushing with shock, sniggering and outrage that so much attention is being devoted to something so irrelevant to affairs of state. Yet, at a time when the French are tired of reading how depressed they are, claims of Hollande's bedroom romp may well be a welcome distraction. It may even help him in the polls.

Hollande is nonetheless threatening legal action against "Closer" for privacy invasion. That gesture itself is extraordinary for two reasons.

First, Hollande has not denied the affair with 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet --- the magazine has pulled its article from its online edition under pressure from Gayet's lawyers, but says that does not mean its claims are inaccurate.

France's first lady hospitalized after report of Hollande's affair

'Bizarrely comical'

Second, in the past Hollande's predecessors in the Elysee Palace -- notably Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac --- never had to worry about the French press reporting their feminine conquests.

Hollande threatens action against tabloid
Hollande's former partner loses election

Until recently, a media omerta protected the private lives of French politicians from the kind of intense scrutiny that British and American politicians are well accustomed.

If the "Closer" photo spread is accurate, Hollande's secret assignations with Julie Gayet were bizarrely comical. He was allegedly slipping out the back door of the Elysee Palace, hopping on a scooter and buzzing through the streets of Paris on his way to Gayet's apartment.

There's a claim that presidential bodyguard brought croissants to the love nest in the morning. Touching, perhaps, but not very presidential if true.

One can only imagine how Hollande's official companion, Valerie Trierweiler, reacted to reports of such assignations.

Trierweiler met Hollande when she was a reporter for "Paris Match" magazine. He left his long-time common-law wife, Segolene Royal -- the mother of his four children -- for Trierweiler before the 2012 presidential election.

According to the claims in "Closer," it would seem he may now have replaced Trierweiler with Gayet, though Trierweiler still occupies one wing of the Elysee Palace.

'Time-honored tradition'

The alleged Hollande sexual scandal proves that the old media omerta rules and predictable legal gesticulations don't work anymore in France.
Matthew Fraser

In that respect, Hollande would be adhering to a time-honored French tradition of official mistresses stretching back to the Bourbon kings.

Louis XV fell under the influence of the Marquise de Pompadour, who was his "favorite" at court. A century later Napoleon III was an indefatigable seducer of alluring courtesans.

In the Third Republic, George Clemenceau was an infamous womanizer; and Felix Faure famously died in 1899 while enjoying the lascivious attentions of his mistress in the Elysee Palace.

The corpulent and affable Hollande may have learned the hard way that, unlike his political mentor Mitterrand, he cannot count on media complicity about his personal indiscretions.

He could have realized that while watching Nicolas Sarkozy's personal crises fill the headlines.

When the former French president's wife Cecilia left him for another man, "Paris Match" published a photo of Cecilia and her new boyfriend. And when Sarkozy began courting the fashion model Carla Bruni, their romance was all over the press, much of it stage-managed by Sarkozy.

French vs. Anglo-American media

Traditionally, French and Anglo-American media behavior regarding the private lives of public figures have been a study in contrast.

The standard explanation is that the French media never reported on private lives because the French simply don't care about the personal vices of their leaders. The Anglo-Saxon press, on the other, have shown a prurient interest in private vices to pander to a pervasive "Puritanical" culture in America and Britain.

This may explain why Anglo-American politicians caught with their pants down tend to confess and resign --- or in some cases wheel out wife and children and apologize abjectly, then resign under pressure shortly afterwards.

In France, by contrast, politicians tend to sue and stay in office. If French politicians can count on Catholic indulgence in their vices, the law is also on their side.

That changed when Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- who was favored over Hollande as Socialist candidate for the French presidency -- was arrested in New York for sexual assault.

At first the French media establishment was stunned. The old omerta rules didn't apply in this case. Not only was a criminal act alleged but it was alleged to have taken place in America, where different media laws and attitudes applied. Many in the French establishment fulminated against Anglo-Saxon press abuses in sensationalizing the DSK scandal, but the fact is that the French media jumped in.

With the Hollande sex scandal, the French political establishment is predictably coming to his defense and condemning the tabloid excesses of "Closer." But again, it hasn't stopped the mainstream French media from covering the story.

Legal differences

Beyond Anglo vs. French cultural differences, the law is another factor. While there are distinctions between American and British law, generally speaking the press can report on private lives if claims can be proved to be true. Truth is the test.

French law, by contrast, is indifferent to truth. In France, protecting personal privacy trumps the truth. In France numerous politicians and celebrities have successfully sued gossip magazines for violating their privacy.

In most cases, however, damages awarded are relatively modest. "Closer" magazine -- even if it loses a lawsuit brought by Hollande -- will likely pay a small fine compared with the huge profits from newsstand sales of the alleged Hollande sex scandal edition.

French law, even if strict on privacy matters, is increasingly becoming irrelevant with the explosion of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook. French courts have no extra-territorial jurisdiction over anyone tweeting, posting and commenting outside of France about Hollande's sexual escapades.

Even in France, it's impossible for Hollande, or any other public figure, to bring lawsuits against everyone who has violated their privacy on Twitter or Facebook.

The alleged Hollande sexual scandal proves that the old media omerta rules and predictable legal gesticulations don't work anymore in France. It's a new game with new rules.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matthew Fraser.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT