Hollande saga: five reasons to redefine the French presidency
The French have kissed goodbye to the era of privacy: it's time the political class woke up, says John Gaffney
THERE are five things which make Francois Hollande’s alleged affair with the actress, Julie Gayet, sadly comical and politically dangerous.
First, public attitudes have shifted, not so much about sexual mores and the weaknesses of the flesh – in fact, with the decline in religious observance, things are even more liberal. But cheating on your wife or partner, with such intensity and frequency is seen – even in France – as sexist and the sign of a patriarchal society of inequality and disrespect. And sending your partner, Valérie Trierweiler, into hospital in a state of nervous collapse is not seen as the act of a man of integrity.
Second, Hollande came in to stop all this stuff. He was 'Mr Normal' who was going to bring exemplary conduct to political life, and stop all the tabloid press gossip lowering the status of the presidency. He said so himself. In fact, his somewhat tortured relationships with former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, with Trierweiler, and now with Gayet have never been out of the headlines.
Third, there is something comical and diminishing of the presidency in his slipping out not in a Ferrari (vis Valery Giscard d'Estaing) but on the back of a scooter (driven by his chauffeur who also buys the croissants – you could not make this up), the easy victim of Closer paparazzo Sébastien Valiela, waiting, camera at the ready, across the street.
Fourth, there is the question of security. Why does he need bodyguards all around him in public when he takes such risks in private? It was fortunate it was not an al-Qaeda hit squad on the other side of the street.
Finally, even before this incident, he was the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic to date. If he had had any success with the unemployment figures or the stagnating economy since he had been elected, perhaps the French might think he deserved a night off; the French presidency is now like the post of a CEO whose full-time job it is to sort out France Inc, and the efficiency and health of its political and social institutions. Affairs at the office are no longer part of the job description.
French commentators in the political class and the media seem to be catching up with the significance of all these things very slowly. There seems to be a severe case of cognitive dissonance on their part regarding what is at stake here because, of course, the president does not have a private life like everyone else. He’s the president.
Besides, when things are going well, the “private life” is deliberately on display for all to see. That is how the French presidency thrives. Before yesterday's conference - which, for once, everybody watched - he had three choices regarding his very public affair: say something before, say something during, or say nothing. Each would be consequential in its effects.
He chose the last, almost, saying he would not answer questions on issues of his private life, but would respond in the coming days (before he – and Trierweiler – are scheduled to visit the Obamas in mid-February).
It is clear that he, and all the commentators, and the political class are now thinking about redefining the status of the French first lady. It is as if virtually the whole country is in in denial. Politics would be far better served if, rather than redefine the role and status of the first lady, France were to redefine the role and status of the presidency itself.
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics and Co-Director at the Aston Centre for Europe and visiting Professor at Sciences-Po, Rennes. This is an abridged version of an article originally published at The Conversation.