Hollande and the French kiss goodbye to era of private presidential affairs

When things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives.

François Hollande joins a long tradition of French Fifth republic Presidents who have had affairs. Widespread attachment to France’s privacy laws, and a press corps that generally agrees with them, combined with a generalised reverence for the office of the presidency have meant that rumours always remained largely rumours – until now.

In the past, gossip did no harm because there was always and still is a generally more indulgent attitude to affairs of the heart and tolerance of “liaisons” by both men and women (especially men). There has also been the conviction throughout French history that power is the strongest aphrodisiac both for those who exercise it and those fascinated by it.

The nearest Charles de Gaulle got to sexual scandal was his wife Yvonne being asked by an English reporter what was the most important thing in her life, to which she replied “A penis” (say “happiness” slowly with a French accent). But stories of sexual intrigue – probably secret service smears – surrounded the Pompidous.

But Valery Giscard d’Estaing set the tone, and he encouraged it, seeing himself as a true Don Juan. Rumours still abound of many liaisons – did he and the softcore star Sylvia Kristel have an affair in the Elysée? Who was the woman in the Ferrari he was with when, driving though Paris in the early hours, he hit a milk van? He even happily encouraged rumours about himself, for example, that a president just like him had an affair with a princess just like Diana.

Mitterrand was also linked to many women, including the editor of Elle, Françoise Giroud, the singer Dalida, and many more. Rumour became fact when he revealed he had raised a second secret family, and a secret daughter Mazarine, at the state’s expense. Ah les beaux jours!

The tone changed from the stylish and Romanesque to testosterone-fuelled vulgarity with Jacques Chirac, known by his chauffeur (and then the world) as “Mr 15 minutes, shower included”. His highly popular and respected wife, Bernadette Chirac, started a sea-change in attitudes when, in her best-selling autobiography, she wrote touchingly and honestly about how painful that aspect of her marriage had been.

Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly had affairs with journalists, including, allegedly Chirac’s daughter Claude, but his dalliances and his very public life with second wife Cécilia Sarkozy and later Carla Bruni were seen more as the uncontrollable passions of a (short) man with uncontrollable ambition, an uncontrollable temper, and an uncontrollable desire for attention and affection.

Sadly comical

Even with that history behind thim there are five things which make Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress, Julie Gayet, sadly comical and politically dangerous. First is the sea-change mentioned earlier. Attitudes have shifted, not so much about sexual mores and the weaknesses of the flesh – in fact, with the decline in religious observance, things are even more liberal. But cheating on your wife or partner, with such intensity and frequency is seen – even in France – as sexist and the sign of a patriarchal society of inequality and disrespect. And sending your partner, Valérie Trierweiler, into hospital in a state of nervous collapse is not seen as the act of a man of integrity.

Second, Hollande came in to stop all this stuff. He was “Mr Normal” who was going to bring exemplary conduct to political life, and stop all the tabloid press gossip lowering the status of the presidency. He said so himself. In fact, his somewhat tortured relationships with former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, Trierweiler, and now Gayet have never been out of the headlines.

Third, there is something comical and diminishing of the presidency in his slipping out not in a Ferrari but on the back of a scooter (driven by his chauffeur who also buys the croissants – you could not make this up), the easy victim of Closer paparazzi, Sébastien Valiela, waiting, camera at the ready, across the street.

Fourth, there is the question of security. Why does he need bodyguards all around him in public when he takes such risks in private? It was fortunate it was not an al-Qaeda hit squad on the other side of the street.

Finally, even before this incident, he was the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic to date. If he had had any success with the unemployment figures or the stagnating economy since he had been elected, perhaps the French might think he deserved a night off; the French presidency is now like the post of a CEO whose full-time job it is to sort out France Inc, and the efficiency and health of its political and social institutions. Affairs at the office are no longer part of the job description.

Slow to catch up

French commentators in the political class and the media seem to be catching up with the significance of all these things very slowly. There seems to be a severe case of cognitive dissonance on their part regarding what is at stake here because, of course, the president does not have a private life like everyone else. He’s the president.

Besides, when things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives. Before his first press conference after the scandal broke which, for once, everybody watched, he had three choices regarding his very public affair: say something before, say something during, or say nothing. Each would be consequential in its effects.

He chose the last, almost, saying he would not answer questions on issues of his private life, but would respond in the coming days (before he – and Valérie – are scheduled to visit the Obamas in mid-February).

It is clear that he, and all the commentators, and the political class are now thinking about redefining the status of the French first lady. It is as if virtually the whole country is in in denial. Politics would be far better served if, rather than redefine the role and status of the first lady, France were to redefine the role and status of the presidency itself.

John Gaffney receives funding from The Leverhulme Trust

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

François Hollande at a press conference, at which he was asked who his "First Lady" was. Photo: Getty

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem