You say banana, I say banane

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The media frenzy seen in the Monica Lewinsky affair would never occur in France. Nor would any politician ‘out’ themselves on adultery, Ross Cameron-style.

Not that France is lacking in Clintons or Lewinskys. Au contraire. The French press, however, would not tell tales about what happened. They would not extrapolate, gesticulate, gossip, postulate, pontificate and fornicate – figuratively speaking – on every solitary and sordid detail.

For years the French press completely avoided talk of the double life of Francois Mitterand, who had a daughter to his lover. What was there to expose? The man was having an affair, the media knew, his wife knew. Many members of the French public also knew, but didn’t care. Although every French man and woman gets to wallow in their private morality for all it’s worth, in the main the French see public discussion of what goes on in the bedroom of others as silly, boring, unsophisticated, hypocritical and trivial. Above all, indiscrete.

In France, individual privacy is an essential democratic right, and even politicians get to enjoy that privilege. This is unthinkable to the morally crusading and confrontational Anglo-Saxon press. As the Guardian’s Paris correspondent Jon Henley noted a few years back:

‘The Anglo-Saxon tradition is of a militant style journalism, without sparing those in power, without personal complicity between journalists and politicians. We see our job as being more aggressive and critical, more independent, we have no fears of upsetting those in power, whereas the French press is largely more prudent, established and institutionalised.’

Critics of the French media’s silence on politicians’ private lives argue it amounts to self-censorship. But the Anglo-Saxon approach goes to the other extreme – ‘self-sexorship’ – where the public’s right to know is a fundamental right to know it all. And where the noble pursuit of the whole truth and nothing but the truth descends into the whole smut and nothing but the smut.

Journalist for the current affairs magazine L’Express, Katell Pouliquen, has said the difference is historical and cultural:

‘The traditional British Puritanism drives journalists to defend morality at all costs and everywhere.

‘The French tradition separates distinctly private and public life, with a respect, even a sanctification of political power. One does not launch an attack for nothing. The English are at the opposite extreme, that of an absolute moralisation, where journalists do not let politicians get away with anything including ill-considered displays of the sexual life of this or that minister from the Blair government.’

For Jon Henley, ‘there is probably a happy medium to find between the two different practices’.

Deputy Managing Editor of the French daily newspaper Libération, Jean-Michel Thenard, agrees – up to a point. He recently conceded some value in the Anglo-Saxon media model, but only where it applies to investigation of private impropriety that impinges on serious public issues. He identified some desirable shift in France since the 1980s in the Anglo-Saxon direction: ‘These days journalists write about corruption, they write as soon as the morality of public life is at stake.’ He added an important proviso: ‘A huge difference remains the conception of private life and especially of the border between that and public life. The British turn moral and private subjects into political ones. In France that is very rare.’

Sex itself is hardly scandalous, unless you make it so. The French yardstick is, if it breaks or challenges law – then talk. If not, it’s mere gossip.

When National Assembly deputy Noel Mamere conducted a gay wedding recently that was news. So was a high ranking bureaucrat’s dalliance with a prostitute. The fact that the mayor of Paris is gay – and his affairs “ were not.

Vive la différence.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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