French sex scandal to break public taboo
Accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn look set to change society's opinion on keeping politicians' lives private.
Last Modified: 16 May 2011 13:24
Former president Francois Mitterrand kept his second family with his mistress secret for years [GALLO/GETTY]

It's a country known to turn a blind eye to the affairs of politicians and public figures, long arguing that private lives have no bearing on a person's professional performance.

But the accusations levelled at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and leading Socialist candidate for next year's presidential campaign, look set to change the French tradition of keeping politicians' personal lives private.

The allegations of attempted rape are several steps too far for a public generally non-plussed by what their leaders get up to in their spare time.

"France is experiencing its first Anglo Saxon-style sex scandal and is suddenly entering an area of public debate that, until now, whether because of cultural exception, the 'Latin' identity or 'democratic weakness', was previously confined to rumours and gossip within a small circle of initiates," French newspaper Liberation wrote on Monday.

"Unbelievable, incredible, inconceivable," Le Figaro newspaper said.

'Fidelity, non'

In the past, private lives of politicians have been kept that way, and if leaked, are not treated in the tabloid manner that often occur in countries such as Britain and the United States.

Francois Mitterrand, the former French president, famously replied "So what?" when a journalist asked him about rumours that he had a love-child with his mistress Anne Pingeot, ending the conversation on that topic.

Eric Besson, the French industry minister, said "Fidelity, non" during his wedding vows, according to a book written by his former wife who broke the French taboo by exposing the couple's private life.

And Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, became the first president to divorce and remarry while in office, in a move that didn't help his popularity but did not end his career.

Elsewhere, reactions to extra-marital affairs have not been treated in the relaxed French fashion.

In Britain, former interior minister David Blunkett was forced to resign after media storm erupted around an alleged affair with Kimberly Quinn, a magazine publisher, with accusations that he fast-tracked her nanny's visa.

Bill Clinton, the former US president, faced months of tough questioning over his affair with Monica Lewinsky and in the end made a serious apology to the nation in order to win back public support.

Strong morals and family values are seen as pre-requisites for leaders in many nations. But Agnes Poirier, French journalist and author, believes the French are "more mature" when it comes to affairs of the heart.

"They realise in their own lives that being married is difficult, it's not their neighbour's business. In the French line you can be perfectly professional but be a serial lover," she told Al Jazeera.

The French also have a long tradition for tough privacy laws that prevent newspapers and magazines publishing any intimate details of public figures' lives. For example, the French press kept Mitterrand's mistress secret for years.

Criminal act

"The French people are quite relaxed about a president or politician having mistresses and so on," Christian Roudaut, a French political commentator and writer, said.

"But we are in a different category here, we are talking about attempted rape, we are talking about criminal acts. This is why it's taken so seriously and it could be the end of Dominique Strauss-Kahn."

Poirier adds: "There is just one type of sex scandal in France. For a man to have an extra-marital affair, for a man to have a penchant for the opposite sex, it's not a scandal. A mistress is not considered news ... it doesn't have an effect on public life.

"Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a totally different thing, it's a sex scandal worthy of being treated in the public sphere. We're not talking about consent, we're talking about attempted rape, therefore it's a scandal."

More often in France, money is seen as a dirtier word than sex.

Last week, a picture of Strauss-Kahn being driven around in a Porsche set off the French press and political camps.

"There was a mini-storm because a Porsche costs a lot of money and the guy is a Socialist, and therefore he should be seen as having a less flamboyant lifestyle," Poirier said.

"Capitalism is a bit of a dirty word, it's seen with suspicion.

"In the latest polls, after the Porsche incident, people said they couldn't care less. But the next poll is likely to be very different."

Al Jazeera
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