Sunday, October 21, 2007

Cécilia Sarkozy may change France more

The Sarkozy divorce news finally came out last Thursday, on the day of the first mass transport strike in France since 1995. With its terse press release, the Elysée was obviously intent on burying bad headlines.

If it had been Britain, it would clearly have been an attempt to hide a politician's embarrassing matrimonial breakdown. Not in France. Media-savvy Sarko was using his high-profile divorce to deflect attention from the much more harmful consequences of an industrial dispute. That is a key difference between our two countries.

The truth is that while we voters here in France like a good gossip, we're about as likely to judge our leaders on personal transgressions as to expect them not to have affairs. It's when they don't have any that we worry.

Ever since the time of Robespierre and the Revolution, the French have been deeply distrustful of "incorruptible" politicians who lead a blameless life. Since Nicolas Sarkozy is a keep-fit-crazed teetotaller, he's almost obliged to have an eye for the ladies — he'd be highly suspect otherwise.

Nor did anyone mistake the final split as having been caused by both Nicolas's and Cécilia's affairs during their 11-year marriage (and nearly 20 years of life together).

Yes, she left him two years ago to spend a couple of months in New York with a high-profile event organiser, and has been spotted more recently with a French novelist.

Yes, even before his carefully-leaked affair with a Le Figaro political journalist – in some ways a tit-for-tat designed to show Cécilia he was emphatically not pining – Sarko was well-known for office flings, usually with comely staffers (one of whom, some 15 years back, was Jacques Chirac's daughter Claude).

But none of this is the stuff French divorces are made of. Most couples are expected to weather a significant amount of straying.

The example comes from the top. Not a single Fifth Republic president, with the possible exception of Georges Pompidou, who was unfashionably in love with his wife, refrained from playing the field — not even De Gaulle, whose discreet affairs took place long before he reached the Elysée at 68, and are not common knowledge.

Mitterrand used to go on the pull with his Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, thereby cheating on both his wife, Danielle, and his regular mistress, Anne Pingeot. This was well-known in Paris, if not printed because of stringent French privacy laws.

So when 92 per cent of respondents told a Le Parisien poll yesterday that their opinion of Nicolas Sarkozy won't be affected one way or another by his divorce, why, you might ask, are there still such laws in the first place?

First, because until recently, hypocrisy was seen as one of the cardinal virtues in France. George Orwell may have coined the term, but we live doublespeak every day.

In a country where apologies are seen as an unforgivable admission of weakness, it's the (relative) whiteness of one's lies that sometimes gets questioned, not the practice itself.

To the French, the resignation of Lord Browne from BP (or, for that matter, Bill Clinton's impeachment) was incomprehensible.

Of course Browne lied about his sex life — if anything, evidence of good sense and his capacity to run a major multinational oil company (or a superpower) with the required amount of sophistication in a difficult world.

It's frankness that gets you in hot water here. My grandfather, Marius Moutet, a former cabinet minister and senator, never made a secret of his complicated private life, which included two (consecutive) wives and an official mistress whom he regularly took to state functions.

He recognised all his children from his various women, so I spent happy holidays in the family house in the Drôme countryside with my cousins and their assorted parents.

Later, I found out that his openness cost him the presidency of the Fourth Republic back in 1953, when the President was elected by the two Houses.

It took 13 ballots to reach a decision; my grandfather's name came up a number of times, always to be shot down with "Monsieur Moutet's private life does not bear inspection." What his colleagues meant was not that he had women but that, unlike them, he didn't lie about it.

Second, the French don't like to admit, even to themselves, their guilty pleasures. No, not sex, that's absolutely fine. But taking a prurient (or what is seen as prurient by our tame standards) interest in others' private lives is the sin you never own up to.

It's not that there isn't an interest — tabloids and trashy weeklies, which set aside a hefty budget for fines and illegally expose celebrities' private lives, sell more copies than all newspapers combined.

It's like a taste for American fast food (superciliously foodie France has the largest number of McDonald's franchises per capita outside the US): unacknowledged, shameful, irreconcilable with the lofty image of ourselves we need to hold.

Yet this may be changing at last, and for that we have both 2007 presidential candidates to thank. This last election was contested by two candidates whose domestic relationships were about to implode, and have, indeed, now done so.

More significant, perhaps, is that both Ségolène Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy were outsiders who relentlessly cultivated personal publicity to dislodge their respective parties' heavyweights. This made their complacently-touted private lives fair game to the media, as legitimate political coverage.

When Ségolène publicly kicked her partner, François Hollande, out of their home, his longstanding affair with a Paris-Match political journalist was reported in one of the celebrity mags.

Hollande and his girlfriend duly sued for invasion of privacy. She was awarded damages, he wasn't — on the grounds that he had already paraded too much of his life for the media to be "harmed" by the invasion of his privacy.

But nowhere does the law actually make such a distinction – and in a Roman-law country where the Civil Code counts for more than jurisprudence, and where judges are civil servants who are not meant to make or amend the law, this is a groundbreaking ruling.

Expect, therefore, more coverage of French public figures' private lives in the future — but not much more accountability. This being a Latin and a Catholic country, it's money that can harm a politician's career – not just corruption, but simple familiarity with the ways and means of the rich.

Sarko's brief summer holiday on a billionaire businessman friend's yacht cost him far more in popularity ratings than anything he and Cécilia could cook up. (The hospitality of Tony Blair's rich cronies would have destroyed his image if he'd been French.)

As for Cécilia, who once boasted that she "didn't have one drop of French blood in her" (born in France, she's of Spanish-Russian-Romanian extraction), she probably wasn't as disingenuous as she sounded when, protesting that she had left because she couldn't stand the glare of publicity, she nonetheless gave interviews on Friday.

"One day, you no longer feel at home in the couple. The couple is no longer the essential thing in your life. It doesn't work any more. The reasons are inexplicable," she said.

In truth, she left because she was bored. She'd done it once before, dropping her famous, older, TV presenter first husband for the 30-year-old Sarkozy.

This is part of the fascination she undeniably exerts on the French, and very likely on Sarko himself — they don't understand someone running off just when they've reached the top. Unable to fake interest for too long, she's a bolter. It is, let's face it, a type more classically British than French.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2007

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