Is it more progressive to be accepting of affairs?

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Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

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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.

 

19 comments

  • The hypocrisy is with the President, whose righteous indignation concerning the invasion of his privacy contrasts with the betrayal and humiliation of his girlfriend who is supporting him and putting herself in a public position as a result. The biggest sinners are always the most self-righteous and attack is the best form of self-defence when you are in a tricky situation. The real reason he is getting some sympathy from the French is because Ms Trierweiler is not very popular and had an affair with Hollande when he was still with his previous long-time partner and mother of his children, whom he ultimately left for Trierweiler. Some might think she is getting her just desserts (although not the Flanby).

    Commenter
    Jo
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 10:23AM
    • "The biggest sinners are always the most self-righteous and attack is the best form of self-defence when you are in a tricky situation."

      absolutely agree, caught red handed yet again, choose to not talk about the events because they are "private" issues and then still go on the offence because it was published, trying to diminished the seriousness of his egocentric and disrespectful behavior is plain pathetic.

      Commenter
      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 12:31PM
    • I fail to see any contrast or hypocrisy. It's possible to hold two positions simultaneously: the right to determine your own relationship conduct, and the right to privacy and secrecy about it. You might think it's unedifying behavior, but it's not fo you or me to judge.

      Commenter
      beria
      Date and time
      January 21, 2014, 7:59AM
  • I wholeheartedly agree with the article. That subject aside, I would like to add very strongly that even in a non-feminist angle when a person is voted into public office there is an expectation that this person has not only a higher duty of care towards those he serve, but also as a role model. This is why it doesn't reflect well off anyone in such a position to be an alcoholic even out of "office hours" nor do we think highly of someone who "puffs up" recreationally where available legally (i.e. weed). Even more so in a position where this person is supposed to be representative of the best of the people, to serve and uphold certain principles and values which are usually - naturally - tied to morals. An example of these morals - to not be corrupt, to not engage in conflict of interest (see president with oil companies and war, not a good combo) - all these are moralistic principles one cannot or would find it hard to separate from say, having an affair, having three wives and so on.
    This is why for example, Julia Gillard is demonised for not adhering to the "married hetereo" ideal, and her husband mocked for not being in a position equal or higher than hers - meaning if she were prime minister, he is expected to at least be in a high powered executive position or a well-connected businesman.
    Unfortunately, we are a terribly unevolved society where double standards apply, sometimes on both sides, and rather than cooperation and partnership of the genders we have a gender war by which BOTH male and female jostle to have the upper hand, the exclusive privileges.

    Commenter
    Green Tea
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 10:34AM
    • "This is why it doesn't reflect well off anyone in such a position to be an alcoholic even out of "office hours" nor do we think highly of someone who "puffs up" recreationally where available legally (i.e. weed)."
      This seems to be a relatively recent expectation, though. Hawke was a proud drinker, and arguably the most popular PM in the last 30 years. And FDR, considered among the greatest US Presidents, was a heavy alcoholic. It reminds me of an email that makes the rounds every so often:

      'It is time to elect a new world leader, and only your vote counts. Here are the facts about the three leading candidates.

      Candidate A - Associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologists. He's had two Mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day.

      Candidate B - He was kicked out of office twice, sleeps until noon, used opium in college and drinks a quart of whiskey every evening.

      Candidate C - He is a decorated war hero. He's a vegetarian, doesn't smoke, drinks an occasional beer and never cheated on his wife.'

      I'll leave it to others to figure out who each candidate is if they haven't seen it before.

      The puffing up one is interesting too, as Clinton and Obama, probably the two most popular US Presidents in the last 30 years, both admitted to doing so in their younger years.

      Perhaps if voters spent more time scrutinising these officials' performance at their elected duties, and less time on how clean cut their family unit comes across, we may actually see some real work being done again at the top level.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 12:09PM
    • I can only assume you haven't been paying attention to Obama's approval ratings

      Commenter
      Steve
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 2:02PM
    • So markus, you haven't hypothesised about the policies and political records of those three candidates. That would carry far more weight with me (and I suspect most voters) than details of their private conduct.

      Commenter
      beria
      Date and time
      January 21, 2014, 8:03AM
    • @Markus - you make a valid point. But as our society evolves, as does perhaps the standards of the day. Perhaps in the near future these things which were traditional signposts for the integrity and credibility of a candidate. Personally if one has smoked pot or had a few flings here and there when they were younger and now stands for public office, I would consider their merits and qualifications for the role first and foremost, and the others perhaps as a general reference if it somehow gets put out. But as it stands, when we look at a person's credibility, we consider not only their qualifications and character/values but their life/actions/achievements in those. An example - If I were given the choice of two candidates, both perhaps having done a 'bit' of what youngsters do in their heyday, both now happily married and successful - but one has become the CEO of a highly successful tobacco/pharmaceutical company complete with excellent qualifications and so on, and the other, perhaps not a businessman but a well-respected lawyer with ties to the community and does community work, I would choose the one with ties to the community. Actions speaks credibility and has traditionally been the case as the most salient indicator to future performance and present suitability. Perhaps this will change tomorrow.
      @Steve - I'm not sure your one liner helps the conversation along. He's smoked pot in his younger days but we judge a person post-selection process when they are currently functioning in their role. If he did today - then that's another story.

      Commenter
      Green Tea
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 21, 2014, 10:16AM
    • @steve, very fair point. But his approval rating was not great before the last election either, yet still won 62% of the electoral vote. And that would have been on the back of his personality more than his successes in his first term (or lack thereof).
      Perhaps people are finally seeing through the spin. One can only hope.

      Commenter
      Markus
      Location
      Canberra
      Date and time
      January 21, 2014, 10:26AM
  • Respecting people's right to privacy does not mean condoning bad behaviour. Hollande has been exposed for having an affair, now let's avoid the descent into tawdry details. Personally, I'm not interested in the least about who sleeps with whom. It's their business, not mine and certainly not that of a press that loves nothing more than to spread mud whilst adopting a position of moral superiority (News of the World style). Eek!

    Commenter
    Berna
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 1:00PM

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