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.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt