Politicians braced as French press casts its gaze on the private lives of ruling elite

Notes on a scandal. Christophe Verdier

The French press pack has entered uncharted territory. With President Francois Hollande caught in the glare of the paparazzi’s camera flashes leaving the house of the actress Julie Gayet, Closer magazine sent shockwaves through the political classes.

The political elite has denounced Closer’s move and alleged it is willing to do anything in the name of sales.

Hollande and Gayet have said they want to press charges. A group of editors published a joint statement criticising the ethical drift in the press. They also reinforced the “Charte de Munich”, which sets out that a journalist must both respect people’s private lives, and must not use illegitimate methods to obtain information, photographs and documents.

There has been little room for debate on these issues in France until now. A law introduced in 1970 protects people’s privacy. One of its provisions includes a “right to an image” that has become a reference point and led to a number of convictions.

However, the French state hasn’t prosecuted anyone on this basis for a long time, and it’s up to the victims to take civil action. French presidents haven’t pursued the press under the law – although Hollande’s predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy did start a civil action and then withdrew it. There is also no institution to enforce the Charte de Munich, although most journalism unions recognise it.

More interesting than the defence of this moral principle, is how and why a celebrity magazine has broken a consensus that the private lives of politicians were a no-go-area.

Two things are happening here. The first is a long evolution of French journalism towards a more anglo-saxon model. The second, is that in the last decade, politicians’ private lives have become more prominent in their communications strategies. But more and more, the internet has wrenched away their control of such information.

End of the French model?

The model of French political journalism was influenced by the 1789 revolution. This installed freedom of expression for the press, but at the same time created a confusion between the agendas of journalists and politics. Hébert, Marat, Desmoulins and others were both active revolutionaries, at the same time as journalists and pressmen. This makes the notion of a “fourth estate” quite foreign with regard to the origins of French journalism.

Professor, journalist and politician, Jean Jaurès blurred the lines. Jeanne Menjoulet & Cie

For the whole of France’s Third Republic – from the end of the 19th century to the first half of the 20th – there was a crossover between the careers of journalists and politicians, such as Aristide Briand, Jean Jaurès, Georges Clémenceau and Léon Blum. Perhaps the respect that French journalists pay to politicians’ private lives, stems from that. Or perhaps the French Catholic culture is more forgiving than protestant culture – labelled “puritan” in French public debate.

Nevertheless, with the advent of television and radio, where the pluralism of the press couldn’t exist to the same extent, the fourth estate started to come of age. At the same time as the public denounced the connivance between politicians and journalists with growing anger, the French media began to change its reporting, criticising their misadventures more often.

A number of editors were impressed by the way the American press reported Dominique Strauss Kahn, the former head of the IMF, during the Sofitel affair when he was accused of rape. Despite the fact that Strauss Kahn was a leading candidate for the presidency, the French media had never reported on the relationships he had with other women, many of which have since been covered.

Private life in the public eye

Over the decades, as French politics has warmed to the idea of public relations, elements of politicians’ private lives have come more prominently into view. Politicians’ wives, children, and holidays, frequent the pages of celebrity magazines.

Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner, was photographed at a creche with her baby while she was a minister. Sarkozy surprised journalists at his first presidential press conference by talking about his relationship with his new wife. “With Carla, it’s serious stuff”, he said. And the arrival of blogs and social media, particularly Twitter, has meant that from one tweet to another, the boundaries between the public and the private have become ever more fluid.

None of this is particularly surprising. Particularly as since the 1990s little real attention has been paid to the political programme of candidates, which can seem more for show than real agendas to be enforced. At the same time, political policies have become more and more interchangeable, leading to criticism of a single way of thinking. This has made the politicians, their comportment and of course their character, more and more important.

Both the level of debate and the dissemination of political information have become highly personalised. It’s now almost a given that the French public judges a politician’s behaviour in power from what it knows about their character in private.

And French journalists are more and more critical of the attitudes of these political personalities, who put so much of their private life into view, but who blow-up against those who criticise them.

British and American journalists are only too ready to question the prudishness, hesitation and discretion of their French colleagues. And it’s probably right that Closer would never have dared to follow and expose Hollande without this evolution of the relationship between journalists and politicians. Feeling that the taboo was fracturing, the magazine stepped into the breach.

However, if we believe the polls, public reaction to news of the alleged affair was nowhere near as unanimous as its condemnation by the political classes. That could open the way for more scandals in future. Now, it’s up to French politicians to learn their lesson.