Of course it matters. A president is not just a professional figure. He is a head of state, briefly the embodiment of his people. If Queen Elizabeth II were sneaking off on a scooter each night to see a nearby toyboy, Britons might regard it as a “purely private affair.” However, they would be aghast and agog. French President Francois Hollande’s love life may be private, but is it really of no interest or concern to the French people? Pull the other one.
Behavior, style and personal relationships may seem tangential to government as a business, but they cannot be divorced from government as an art. Most of the “unanswered” questions swirling round Tuesday’s Hollande press conference struggled to drag his private life into the public domain. Was there a security risk? Was the president vulnerable to attack or kidnap? Was a bodyguard with him at all times? The answers to these questions were trivial.
They were proxies for a different fascination, one that is bound to envelop the private lives of public figures. We all seek in the lives of celebrities some echo of our joys and sorrows. Personal emotion and behavior may have no imprint on public action. However, such is the secrecy of power that we crave any glimpse of the “man behind the mask.” In a democracy, “the public interest” is to some degree whatever interests the public.
Hollande swatted aside his ever-deferential press corps with “no comment” on his private life. However, he is asking his people to behave differently, to agree a “responsibility pact” to set aside decades of self-indulgence that is in part the legacy of his own French socialist movement. They must come together to liberate employment, and accept a reduction in spending and business taxes. His apologists might argue that this is just a matter of laws and austerity, but he is asking for a change in outlook and behavior. People are less likely to respond if they see the man asking as a fool or an object of ridicule.
I have always seen France as in some sense Britain’s twin. They are two countries with the same population, the same GDP, the same life expectancy and the same murder rate. They share much of their history. French workers pour into London for jobs, while one in five Britons spends at least a week a year in France. Finance flourishes in London, but Europe’s second economy, tourism, flourishes in France, whose coast and countryside are not just more extensive than Britain’s, but also better conserved.
France has seemed a strangely somnolent giant. After World War II it relaxed, while Germany strove. Paris played Athens to Bonn’s Rome. Its leaders were largely responsible for designing the common market as a comfort blanket, not a spur to efficiency. They guarded its agriculture and industry from global competition and isolated its social costs, particularly immigration from Africa, in sprawling suburbs and southern cities. France did well outside of Europe.
The result is often impressive. I drove last autumn from Toulouse across the southwest to Montpellier, as I had previously driven from Paris to Lyon and across to Bordeaux. Everywhere were signs of the huge investment France has made in its industrial and civic infrastructure: Airbus in Toulouse, IBM in Montpellier, Dassault and EADS in Bordeaux, and industrial estates around Paris and Lyon. Seemingly immaculate factories surrounded carefully beautified towns.