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, former French president Francois 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 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, and not just an indiscretion involving a consensual sexual relationship, only adds to a sense on the part of some people in France that the curtain of privacy needs to be lifted.
“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 and cofounder of the political Web site Rue89, 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.”
Haski said he had been wrong to withhold information in the past about aspects of French political figures’ private lives that could have compromised their ability to carry out their public 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.”
He also chided himself and the French media for keeping secret that the Socialist politician Segolene Royal and Francois Hollande, her longtime partner, father of her four children and head of the Socialist Party, were no longer a couple while she was running for president in 2007.
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.
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.