PARIS—The ritual follows a clear script: A scandal threatens to destroy the reputation of a powerful figure in France. Politicians say they are shocked. Friends say they are incredulous. Journalists debate whether they should have investigated rumors and revealed secrets. The dust settles. The status quo returns. Private life is protected.
When, for example, François Mitterrand was asked by a journalist during his presidency whether it was true that he had a daughter outside his marriage, he replied: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business.”
The French have been complicit in accepting this sort of secret-keeping: They do not enjoy ugly revelations that could tear apart the social fabric.
What shocked them more than the existence of Mitterrand’s mistress and their daughter was the revelation after his death that the French state had financially supported them and even provided police protection.
Now, the arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is once again challenging the assumption that the private lives of the rich, famous and powerful are off limits to public scrutiny.
That the most serious accusation against Strauss-Kahn is attempted rape only adds to a sense on the part of some people in France that the curtain of privacy needs to be lifted.
<strong>Used and abused</strong>
“We felt that we were superior to the Americans and the British by upholding the principle of protecting private life,” Pierre Haski, one of France’s leading political commentators, said in an interview.
“But we journalists haven’t done our job properly. We were used and abused in keeping secrets. We need to define our role in a more aggressive way—and say that not everything private is private,” he added.
Haski said he had been wrong to withhold information in the past about French political figures that could have compromised their ability to carry out their duties.
“I knew that when Roland Dumas was foreign minister, he was romantically involved with the daughter of Syria’s defense minister,” he said. “I didn’t write it because it was a matter of his ‘private life.’ I was wrong. It had an impact on France’s foreign policy.”
<strong>Shifts in public life</strong>
The Strauss-Kahn scandal coincides with shifts in French public life in which the codes had already begun to crack and secrets were being revealed.
The personality-driven nature of the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy has created a hunger for personality-driven, tell-all tales.
Technology has made it easy to record and film private meetings and embarrassing public encounters on cell phones, contributing to a transparency that had never before existed.
But historically, the French have traded in rumors and secrets, and there are several reasons why they can be passed around in private circles but not put into public discussion.
<strong>‘Live happy, live hidden’</strong>
First, the French have long been accustomed to unconfirmed stories about powerful figures and politicians.
This dates from the era of the royal court—when information was power, yet had to be handled carefully. Salacious stories, whether true or not, made for good entertainment.
That makes the French tolerant of other people’s private behavior, especially sexual behavior. Private lives must not be invaded by outsiders.
“To live happy, live hidden,” goes the saying by Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian, the 18th-century poet.
There was no public outcry or journalistic investigation, for example, when Sarkozy named Frédéric Mitterrand, the nephew of François Mitterrand, as minister of culture, even though he had written a memoir describing in graphic detail how he had paid for sex with “boys” in Thailand.
<strong>Proof of vigor</strong>
Second, politicians in France are not hounded out of office for sexual indiscretions (although violence against women is another matter).
Traditionally, a political man who reveals his sexual prowess is proving his vigor: He is showing his constituents that he is fully and physically capable of running the country.
During the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal in the United States, even some French politicians associated with Catholic causes chose to congratulate the US leader for his strength of libido.
“He loves women, this man!” Marie-Christine Boutin, a deputy in Parliament, said. “It’s a sign of good health!”
<strong>Too many philanderers</strong>
Third, libel laws are so protective of private lives that the least intrusion in print or broadcasting inevitably leads to legal action and heavy fines.
The French media’s fear of retribution by the powerful inhibits American-style investigative journalism.
Finally, so many powerful figures in France—particularly men—are believed to have strayed from their marital vows that to begin publicizing them might transform the political landscape of France.
Rumors about Strauss-Kahn’s behavior have swirled through France for years. In a kind of French parlor game, journalists and authors quoted one another as a way to avoid lawsuits.
“It is our duty to stop ourselves from spreading rumors,” Christophe Deloire, one of the authors of “Sexus Politicus,” an investigative book on the personal lives of leading politicians, wrote in an editorial in Le Monde on Monday. “To let them spread without having the curiosity to verify them is a mistake.”
He added, “We cannot give our citizens reasons to think that we are lying to them, even by omission.”
The book was credited with breaking the taboo on discussing private life.
“If Strauss-Kahn has a mistress, I don’t care. If he has done something more serious that would affect his capacity as a public figure, that’s where the line should be drawn. We haven’t done our job properly on Strauss-Kahn. But what I fear is that this scandal could lead us into bedroom politics, which I would hate.” <strong><em>Report from New York Times News Service</strong></em>