In France, sex, love and politics are inseparable. Antoine Panaïté and Ariane Osman look at the many affairs that past and current French Presidents have had, in the context of France’s privacy laws.
“La pompe funèbre” – the clever play on words literally meaning “undertaker” or, in the this context, “funeral blow-job” – was the nickname given to the mistress of French President Felix Faure (1895-1899) after he died (rumour has it) whilst receiving oral sex. This incident, which occurred in 1899, wasn’t the first of its kind, with ‘official mistresses’ being part of French political life since the reign of Kings. Over a century later, the saga of French Presidents and their mistresses as well as the reaction of the public (which can only be described as very French in nature) continues.
It was revealed on 10 January 2014 by gossip magazine Closer, that current French President, Francois Hollande, had been having a year-and-a-half long affair with actress Julie Gayet. The Presidential Palace, L’Elysee, had stated that Hollande would not address the rumors however, at a press conference on 25 January, he was directly asked by a journalist, “Is Valerie Trierweiler still the first lady?” to which he replied:
“Each of us in our personal lives can go through difficulties. That is our case. They are painful times. But I have one principle. Private affairs are dealt with in private, with due respect to all parties. Therefore this is not the time nor the place to go into this.”
Hollande’s response is interesting on two fronts. Firstly, he does not deny being implicated in a cheating scandal and secondly, which people who are not accustomed to French culture may find strange or even deplorable, is that Hollande does not and to this day has not apologized for cheating on Trierweiler, who he called ‘the woman of my life’ during his Presidential campaign.
But neither has any other French President whose dalliances out of wedlock have been known, and has certainly affected each and every President both in and out of office. What Hollande’s affair brings up once again is both how the French public are informed and how they react to such news regarding their leaders.
The fact that Hollande’s affair was exposed by the media is a relatively new phenomenon and highlights a recent change in relationship between the two parties. The media has gone from the French President’s protector to his exposer.
Behind Closed Doors
The private lives of French leaders have long been considered out-of-bounds for the French media who, although being aware of the details, have abstained from publishing them due to extremely strict privacy laws as well as an unsaid code of conduct regarding the lives of public officials.
In 1968 former president G. Pompidou denied the allegations that involved both him and his wife in swinging nights and orgies. His successor Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, at 88 years old, continued to brag about his innumerable conquests.
Giscard d’Estaing, president between 1974 and 1981, assumed the role of Casanova throughout his presidency and beyond. In 1974, during his mandate, le Canard enchaîné (a french satirical newspaper) revealed that he was present at the scene of an accident accompanied by a famous actress, as well as his relationship with the photographer Marie-Laure de Decker. He was also said to have slept with Dutch porn star Sylvia Kristel at the presidential palace. After leaving office, Giscard d’Estaing became a successful author. Some of the content unsurprisingly, is very adult in nature. In a book published in the late 2000s, Giscard d’Estaing wrote:
“Nathalie, the beautiful and gorgeous Nathalie, was putting the same fervour into it (love making) and added at certain moments, a mysterious need for submission (…) Nathalie reacts with a defensive shudder at the invasion of my lips.”
Although Giscard d’Estaing never admitted to recounting his sexual escapades, he never denied that these were where he drew most of his inspiration. The former president even went as far as announcing that he had slept with Lady Diana who he insisted would refuse him nothing in the bedroom. The story made the headlines both in France and the UK and he was forced to later admit that this liaison was, unfortunately for him, just another figment of his overactive (and over ambitious) imagination.
The Press Gets Involved: Discovery of Mazarine
The relationship between the president and the press changed dramatically after the magazine Paris Match published photos of François Mitterrand with his secret daughter, Mazarine Pingeot. It was then revealed that he had been harboring a secret family, at the expense of the taxpayer, for over 20 years. Although the affair was well-known in political circles it was expertly hidden from the public eye. Mazarine and Mitterand’s wife, Danielle, famously mourned side by side at his funeral. But Mitterand’s official Mistress was not the only ‘other’ woman in his life. It was rumoured that he also had affairs with the editor of Elle, Francoise Giroud and the famous French singer Dalida.
Presidents taking control of their image
Jacques Chirac’s escapades were well known throughout his presidency and famously coined ‘cinq minute douche comprise’ (five minutes, shower included), by one of his bodyguards. Although preferring to stay discreet during his mandate, both the President and his wife were very open about his affairs after his Presidency. Bernadette Chirac famously said to the media, “avec lui les femmes ça galopait”, (with him, women galloped around) and did not shy away from highlighting his bad behavior in public.
Chirac’s successor, Nicola Sarkozy was even more open with the press regarding his private life, which is ironic since he may be the only French President in history not to have had an affair. He appeared on national television to discuss his marital problems, with second wife Cecilia Sarkozy (who he fell in love with whilst officiating her first marriage to Jaques Martin, a famous TV host).
The couple married in 1996 after Cecilia had taken Sarkozy as her lover. But by Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2007, rumors had spread that the couple were on the edge of divorce. A rumor confirmed by Cecilia Sarkozy, who admitted in an interview that she had left her lover, businessman Richard Attias who managed Sarkozy’s presidential campaign in 2007 (and who she married in 2008) to stay with Sarkozy until the presidential election in order to give him a favorable turnout. In October 2007, merely four months after the election, L’Elysee announced that the couple were divorcing.
But this did not end Sarkozy’s special relationship with the press. Soon after his divorce, he started taking Carla Bruni, an ex-model, on presidential tours and announced at a Press conference ‘It’s serious between Carla and I’, inciting ridicule from the French public. On the day of their wedding he sent a now infamous text message to Cecila, saying ‘If you come back, I stop everything,’ a sign of his desperate and unconditional love for his former wife who he was never able to win back.
A very French reaction
The question remains; how is it possible to explain the attitude of French Presidents regarding extramarital affairs when these could have disastrous consequences on opinion polls and the chance of reelection? This would certainly create a scandal in the majority of European countries, as well as in the United States for which the Monica Lewinsky scandal springs to mind. So what exactly do French people think of all these affairs?
According to a survey by Ifop-JDD, three quarters of people interviewed (77%) said that they considered that the revelations regarding Hollande’s alleged affair were of a private nature. The survey also revealed that young people were less shocked (90%) as well as women of less than 35 years of age (93%). On the other hand, 32% of older people and 33% of Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) supporters said that the President’s private life concerns every French citizen.
It seems clear then that the majority of French people do not believe that the private life of the President belongs in the public sphere. If the affair has prompted any reaction amongst the French, it is regarding the status of First Lady, a role funded by the taxpayer and disputed as irrelevant.
Does the Hollande affaire show that French people believe sex, love and politics to be inseparable? Perhaps – but for the French, this is not the point. The culture is one deeply rooted in privacy protection – with French privacy laws being some of the strictest in the world. The French may be the first to go on strike against any change in legislation proposed by their President, but the day they do the same when hearing about an affair is still very far off.