Sun, May 22, 2011 - Page 9 News List

French question if politicians’ secrets must be kept

France’s journalists respect the private lives of the powerful, but in light of the Strauss-Kahn case, the veil might be lifted

By Elaine Sciolino  /  NY Times News Service, PARIS

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 Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of Francois 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.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-right National Front, later pushed the matter into public view and called for his resignation, but Sarkozy supported him, and he has kept his job.

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 US, even some French politicians associated with Catholic causes chose to congratulate Clinton for his strength of libido.

“He loves women, this man!” said Marie-Christine Boutin, a deputy in parliament and a leader of the religious right. “It’s a sign of good health!”

Boutin has defended Strauss-Kahn after his arrest, suggesting that he was the victim of a trap.

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.

In 2005, the weekly magazine Paris-Match published a cover photo of Cecilia Sarkozy, then the first lady, with Richard Attias, then reputed to be her lover and now her husband. The editor, Alain Genestar, was later forced out at the magazine. Arnaud Lagardere, who controls the magazine’s publishing group, is a close friend of Sarkozy.

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,” wrote Christophe Deloire, one of the authors of Sexus Politicus, a 2006 investigative book on the personal lives of leading politicians, in a guest editorial in Le Monde on Monday. “To let them spread without having the curiosity to verify them is a mistake.”

“We cannot give our citizens reasons to think that we are lying to them, even by omission,” he said.

The book relied heavily on on-the-record interviews and police reports and was credited with breaking the taboo on discussing private life.

While investigating an alleged crime like rape is different from exposing details of someone’s private life, there is reluctance to open the floodgates to investigations of the private lives of the powerful.

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