Whenever the Australian media cover a sex scandal involving a French politician, the allegations are inevitably accompanied by a quote from a French media expert claiming that the French are more laissez-faire about extra-marital affairs. The President is getting a little bit on the side? Ah, as long is it doesn’t interfere with him doing his job, the French people don’t care, they will claim.
It’s widely understood that this lax moral attitude is the reason the French press don’t engage quite so readily as our own in tabloid gossip. But is that really the case? Or are there other reasons for the French media blackout on politicians’ private lives?
The latest French sex scandal to make headlines in Australia was one involving President Nicolas Sarkozy and First Lady Carla Bruni. "Sexual Politics: Trouble in Bruni-Sarkozy Paradise," declared the Sydney Morning Herald last month.
The rumour that both Sarkozy and Bruni were having affairs had actually started on Twitter and was picked up in a blog post on the website of the Journal du Dimanche, a French weekly newspaper. Although the post was soon pulled from the site, the damage had been done and international media were already running the story. Breathless reports of liaisons between Bruni and singer Benjamin Biolay and of the comfort Sarkozy is said to have found in the arms of his Ecology Minister, Chantal Jouanno, were soon in broad circulation.
The Australian ran with Bruni’s faith in her husband’s fidelity — and shared all the gossip along the way — and the US-based ABC News gave the story a plug in its international section. The New York Times even weighed in to the drama, dubbing the affair "Tartuffe in the age of Twitter".
In contrast, the French media’s coverage of the rumours has verged on, well, prudish.
The national daily, Le Monde, contented itself with quoting Sarkozy himself, who declared simply from London that he did not have "a second to waste on these rantings". Even the French tabloids were relatively quiet on the subject, and were careful not to disclose any names in the reports they did run. They did, however, discreetly link to reportage in the Tribune de Genève, The Times and The Telegraph.
And as it turns out, there’s good reason for the circumspection — this story is well on the way to becoming a major "affaire d’Etat" and editors who don’t toe the line have plenty to lose.
Last week, the television news channel France 24 — which had made mention of the rumour in a review of the day’s international press — was sued by Benjamin Biolay.
For his part, President Sarkozy has ordered the French domestic intelligence agency to investigate the original source of the rumours. He has also pressured the owners of the Journal du Dimanche to file a formal legal complaint against the blog poster, which has resulted in a police inquiry into "the introduction of fraudulent data into a computer system". "There had to be a judicial procedure, so that [the media would be fearful of reporting rumours]," Sarkozy’s media adviser Pierre Charon told the French press (French). "We will go all the way so that this doesn’t happen ever again."
And heads have already rolled. The director in charge of the blogs at the Journal du Dimanche website was forced to resign, as was the author of the post, a 23-year-old marketing manager, recruited to create hype on the website.
A journalist from the Journal du Dimanche told (French) news website Rue89.com: "There was an apology letter from our Chief Editor to the presidential couple, then two people were fired, then a law suit … What next?"
This is not the first time that Sarkozy has responded so aggressively to perceived infringements of his privacy by the media.
In 2008, Nouvel Observateur journalist Airy Routier had to apologise to Carla Bruni after reporting — a few days before her wedding to Sarkozy — that the President had sent a text message to his former wife Cécilia promising he would cancel everything if she would come back.
Sarkozy threw the book at Routier but finally decided not to press charges. "Airy Routier faced the possibility of substantial damages and even imprisonment. In France, it does not matter if the allegations are true or not: the strict privacy law [in France]bans the disclosure of private information" Jamil Dakhlia, French media expert at University of Nancy 2 told newmatilda.com.
In 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy chose a tougher approach during a dispute that eventually led to the sacking of the editor of Paris Match, Alain Genestar. The issue? Genestar had published the very first photos of Cécilia Sarkozy — then still married to Nicolas, who was then Interior Minister — with her new lover Richard Attias in New York. Sarkozy was furious and called on his friend Arnaud Lagardère, who also owns Paris Match, and who later dismissed Genestar.
As in Australia, French journalists and editors have to make decisions every day about what kind of material they can get away with publishing. And ethics come into the equation too. "It’s not that we don’t care, both readers and journalists love this kind of story … but it’s first a matter of ethics," explains Rue89.com‘s co-founder Pascal Riché. "We refuse to cover a story linked to privacy except in three cases: if a public figure uses his private life to promote his public life, if he uses his public life to finance his private life, or if the private information gives new clues about the character of a politician." It’s hard to say how much a litigious and publicity-sensitive President affects editors’ decision-making process.
And, in France as in Australia, journalists do sometimes fail to stick to the sort of code that Riché describes. This was the case in the "Mazarine affair", the story of the hidden daughter of the former president François Mitterrand and his mistress, Anne Pingeot. Mazarine’s existence was obediently kept secret by the French media throughout the 1980s, despite the fact that news of her existence was in fact in the public interest. "Mitterrand took his daughter with him during official travels, funded by taxpayers. They should have been told. The press didn’t have the guts," Pascal Riché told newmatilda.com. Last month, a new book revealed (French) that Mazarine was given state-funded 24-hour protection for the duration of her father’s presidency.
In view of the current French President’s latest response to rumour-mongering, it’s unlikely that French audiences will be reading about a Sarkozy love child anytime soon. If that happens, you’re more likely to read about it in Australia.
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