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 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT