You’ve got to love the French. Their President, Monsieur ‘Normale’ Hollande, is photographed trysting with French actress, Julie Gayet, a stone’s throw from the Élysée Palace, where he lives with long-time partner, Valerie Trierweiler. He exits the apartment, disguised (or so he thinks, poor sod) by a motorcycle helmet, climbs on the back of the motorbike driven by his bodyguard (who had, earlier in the morning, delivered croissants to the amorous pair) and goes back home to Valerie and his many duties as President of the Republic.
The photographs duly appear in a French magazine called Closer, and the entire world is agog at the sight of a head of state behaving like a love-struck adolescent. Not so the French. They simply shrug and say the French equivalent of ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do; and what does his private life have anything to do with his public role?’ As for the President himself: not for him, denials of a love affair or anything quite so puerile, thank you. He just puts out a statement condemning the magazine for having intruded into his privacy, to which – like any other French citizen – he is entitled.
Meanwhile, the First Lady (or First Girlfriend, as some cruelly label her) checks into a hospital and lets it be known that doctors have advised her a ‘cure de repos’ (rest cure) to recover from the shock of learning about her partner’s affair (which she likens to being struck by a TGV, or high-speed train). But ‘friends’ of hers let it be known that she is ready to forgive and forget so long as she gets to stay on in her role of First Lady.
You’d think by now, the French would have their juices flowing. Mais non. A survey conducted soon after shows an overwhelming majority of 74 per cent reiterating that President’s Hollande’s domestic life and love affairs are entirely his own business, and the media should steer clear of reporting on it.
And sure enough, when Hollande arrives to address his annual press conference at the Élysée Palace, in a room heaving with French and international media, there are just a couple of questions about his tangled love life. Hollande responds that this is neither the time nor the place, and that he will clear up any doubts about who France’s First Lady is before he embarks on a state visit to the US in February. And then he begins droning on about his economic vision for France. A few days later, Valerie checks out of hospital and moves into La Lanterne, the Presidential weekend residence in the park of Versailles, to recuperate in quiet while Hollande decides whether he will stay with her or move on with Julie.
Can you imagine events unfolding quite like this in any other country?
How do you think it would work for President Barack Obama if he were to be pictured sneaking out from a secret tryst with, say, Scarlett Johansson? He would either be doing the full Clinton in a televised press conference (“I did not have sex with that woman”) or he would be writing his resignation after a few left jabs executed by Michelle (she of the perfectly-toned musculature). And all of America would be up in arms at the moral turpitude of their President. (God alone knows how President Kennedy and his harem of women in the White House would have fared in today’s multimedia age; fortunately for him, his Presidency was played out in front of a more deferential world.)
Or let’s say that David Cameron was rumbled having a bit of nookie with a famous model like Kate Moss. The British tabloid press would go into full meltdown mode. There would be editorials asking for Cameron to go, given that he had betrayed the family values the Conservative Party stood for. He would be expected to make a statement clarifying whether he and Samantha were still a couple and intended to remain so. Kate would be door-stepped at her residence. Her friends and family would be harassed for a quote on the affair. Columnists would write endlessly about the fairy-tale union of David and Samantha and how it had come to such a messy end.
There would be none of that Gallic shrugging and saying that this was a private matter between two people (okay, three) and that it was no one else’s business. That a politician’s private life was nobody else’s concern so long as it did not impinge on the performance of his public duties.
As you can probably tell, I am a fan of the French approach. And so far at least, back home in India, we have taken our cue from the French rather than the Americans or the Brits. We have allowed our leaders their privacy when it comes to their love lives, unless of course, it explodes into the public space as it did with ND Tiwari’s paternity case. But so long as our leaders have behaved with discretion, we have been content to look the other way and let them get on with it.
And if you ask me, that’s the best way to go. A person’s private life is just that: private. We can judge them by their public conduct but as François Hollande put it so elegantly, “Private affairs must be dealt with in private. With respect for the dignity of all involved.”
Vive La France! Vive La Vie Privée!
From HT Brunch, January 26
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