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

Sun, May 22, 2011 - Page 9

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.

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.

“In the US if you’re found to have a mistress, you’re out,” Haski said. “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.”