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French President denies affair with actress

Allegations of an affair between French President Francois Hollande and film actress Julie Gayet are spicing up the gossip columns of Paris.

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COMMENT

Francois Hollande looks like a suburban chemist: bespectacled, bland and infinitely normal. His nickname is Monsieur Flanby, which refers to a French dessert, and is equally apt in its evocation of beige, wobbly, formlessness. He’s the kind of nondescript man you’re likely to forget upon meeting. Up until a week ago you’d be forgiven for failing to identify him as the French President.

But all that changed when Closer magazine (a French tabloid) photographed him at actress Julie Gayet’s apartment slipping on to his scooter in an oversized helmet and melting into a twinkly Parisian night. Upon hearing the news, his current partner Valerie Trierwieler wailed that she felt like a TGV (a high speed train) had smashed against the buffers of her heart and promptly checked herself into hospital. The French public looked on with characteristic insouciance; sexy, pouty and bored.

French president Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler in September 2013.

French president Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler in September 2013. Photo: AP

Or so they said. Polls show that 77% of people thought it to be a personal matter and 84% said that it would not change their opinion of Hollande. In fact, the British Telegraph recently reported that Hollande’s approval rating with women has actually gone up, while his approval rating with men has remained as low as it ever was. And yet, in spite of street polls and commentators expressing their Frenchy respect for their politicians’ right to the kind of privacy that is needed to engage in sexual deceit, Closer sold out of its first print run and French magazines have plucked like bloodthirsty vultures at every sinew of the affair: did Francois and Julie have a pain au chocolat or a croissant for breakfast?

Like any French scandal, the occasion has prompted discussion of the cultural chasm that yawns betwixt the Gauls and us. On one hand, you could contrast the puritanical outrage faced by Clinton with the French indifference to Hollande. Many French commentators are miffed that the affair was reported at all. French sophistication, said Agnes Poirier, once lay in the fact that a Head of State could have an affair without censure. ‘Imagine the head of state of the world's fifth biggest economy scooting through the streets of Paris at night to a rendezvous, and being delivered breakfast at 8am by his bodyguard. So simple, so organic, so carefree, so natural. And so terribly Parisian. Surely, the highest form of civilisation, and the envy of the world. What other head of state could actually do the same? None. And no other head of state could survive the revelation totally unscathed.’ But on the other hand, writers like Joshua Keating from Slate have noticed that for all their talk of privacy, the French have actually done a very good job of gossiping endlessly about the details of the affair. Perhaps they’re just as vulgar as us, only worse because they pretend not to be.

My problem with this debate is that it rests on a presumption that being accepting of affairs makes you sophisticated or progressive. We seem to be in awe of the French press’ subservience to Hollande’s request that ‘private affairs [be] dealt with in private’ compared with our own grubby voyeurism. When John Della Bosca was caught lousing around he resigned from the frontbench, and had to suffer the indignity of having 6 months of his most ridiculous amorous text-messages appear in print. Hollande, by contrast, had one question posed of him concerning the affair at a recent press conference.

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 15:  Copies of French magazines are displayed for sale with coverage of the alleged relationship between French President Francois Hollande and actress Julie Gayet on January 15, 2014 in Paris, France. According to reports, Hollande is alleged to have had an affair with Gayet while still being in a relationship with longtime girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler.  (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)

PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 15: Copies of French magazines are displayed for sale with coverage of the alleged relationship between French President Francois Hollande and actress Julie Gayet on January 15, 2014 in Paris, France. According to reports, Hollande is alleged to have had an affair with Gayet while still being in a relationship with longtime girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images) Photo: Marc Piasecki

Do politicians relinquish the right to privacy when they take public office? Is the right to privacy the most important aspect of this case? From a feminist perspective, privacy has never done much for women. The idea of the home as a private space that exists outside the glare of public scrutiny or law has for centuries been responsible for women’s oppression. It’s taken a long time for people to be convinced that domestic violence is not just a private matter, that house-work should be given a monetary value in divorce settlements or, at the level of personal politics, that there should be an ethics to intimacy.

In this instance, the right to privacy seems to be code for a gentlemanly agreement that nothing impede a man’s right of sexual access to women, and that female partners should suffer this humiliation in silence. ‘There are quite a lot of betrayed women who think that a first lady should face the situation with more dignity’ says prominent commentator Christine Clerc, ‘It’s not the first time that we have a President who has affairs with women. It is even part of a tradition.’ Impeccable reasoning! Who are women to stand in the face of tradition? And could we possibly blame the victim more?

Surely politicians sign up for a life in the public eye. As a symbol of ‘the people’ don’t we have a right to know and then assess whether their personal morals may impact upon their public duties? Would it be too much to suggest that private duplicity could also imply a capacity for deceit in public office?

Call me Victorian, but I see nothing progressive about cheating on your partner. Aside from it being disrespectful, egocentric, humiliating and generally toxic to those you care about, the French acceptance of it is also clearly gendered. When Rachida Dati, the Justice Minister during the Sarkozy government, gave birth to a child whose father she couldn’t identify, she was swiftly demoted and sent off to the European Parliament. As Clerc’s comment makes clear, in a context where women do not play an equal part in political life and are subject to a sexual double standard in private life, it will always be an issue of ‘betrayed women’ and philandering men, not the other way around.

Of course, desire is an unruly force and people will always have affairs. Monogamy is not for everyone and nor is it necessarily an ideal. But surely the primary ethical consideration here is being honest and respectful to everyone involved, not protecting someone’s right to deceive their partner.