Dangerous liaisons: the secret lives of French politicians

The French claim not to care about the private lives of their politicians; rather they profess to judge them only on their leadership ability.

As Elaine Cobb writes for CBS News “In France, private lives of politicians are rarely talked about in public. And strict privacy laws mean the press can’t reveal much of what is often well-known in political and media circles.”1

By contrast, almost every action a politician takes (both before, during and after their term) in Australia is scrutinised, and sensationalised by the media.2

Domestic status no issue in France or Australia

One issue our American counterparts seem to get hung up on is their leader’s marital status. But when François Hollande was elected, as the 24th French president, the French public didn’t bat an eyelid at his domestic status. Hollande lives with partner Valérie Trierweiler and it is reported that the pair have no immediate plans to get married.1


Australians it seems are similarly nonplussed on this particular subject. Current Prime Minister Julia Gillard lives with her partner Tim Mathieson. But where Trierweiler insists on being referred to as Hollande’s ‘companion’, the Australian public has affectionately dubbed Mathieson ‘Australia’s First Bloke’.3


The French don’t mind their politician’s affairs

Where it gets a little messier is on the subject of affairs. As I explored in an earlier article, the French boast a tolerance for infidelity that many other countries, Australia included, would balk at.

And when it comes to voting, according to a Zoosk survey: “The French are the least interested in their politicians’ private lives; 80% of singles in France don’t care if a politician strays compared to … 56% of singles in the U.K. and Australia.”4


But if this is true, then one must wonder why the late French president François Mitterrand went to such lengths to keep the existence of his mistress and their daughter a secret from the French public. Christian Prouteau, author of the tell-all novel on this subject, ‘La Petite Demoiselle et Autres Affaires d’Etat’, suggests that when his secret was finally revealed just months before his death, the French public was more outraged that Mitterrand hid his illness, than they were at the news of his secret second family.5


Australians see things differently to the French

Perhaps professor of gender and cultural studies, Elspeth Probyn, can best explain the Australian attitude to infidelity in politics. As she commented to the Sydney Morning Herald “[Infidelity] could be seen as an issue of self-discipline… if you can give in to the desire to cheat on your partner, what else will you cheat on?”2

This suspicion about infidelity equaling impaired judgment played out in former NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca’s case. It was claimed that not only was he cheating on his wife (a former Federal ALP MP), he also breached parliament security procedures, intentionally missed key events and allegedly offered his mistress a job.6

So the question remains, do politicians have the right to privacy, or does scrutiny simply come with the territory? What do you think?
1 French president-elect’s domestic status a yawn for tolerant French : Elaine Cobbe, CBS News 7 May 2012
2 Sex and the not so private lives of politicians : The Sydney Morning Herald September 2009
3 The First (unmarried) Couple: New Australian PM moves into official residence with her former hairdresser partner : Richard Shears, Mail Online 27 September 2010
4 Gingrich, Giuliani Beware: Single Voters Don’t Like Pol Affairs : Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers 25 May 2011
5 The Late President’s Love Child and Her Guardian Angels : Tracy McNicoll, Newsweek & The Daily Beast 7 May 2010
6 John Della Bosca quits over sex scandal : Rhett Watson, The Daily Telegraph 1 September 2009
1. Francois Hollande on Flickr.
2. Patrick Peccatte on Flickr. 

3. DVA Aus on Flickr. 
4. Alex Schlotzer on Flickr. 
5. pierret_christian on Flickr. 

About the Contributor

Alison Eastaway

“I am Australian-born but Parisienne at heart. I've spent 8 years in Paris, and can usually be found sipping coffee on café terraces or snuggling up with my cat and a book. Follow me on Twitter, or find me on LinkedIn."

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  1. Emmanuelle Tremolet Oct 24, 2012 at 5:12 PM - Reply

    Hello Alison, Usually a debate exists about the politician’s partner when the partner (SHE) is a journalist. Indeed, there is a conflict of interest. Anne Sinclair stopped her politic tv show when she married Dominique Strauss Khan. Idem Béatrice schonberg (that we can see in the picture Nouvel Observateur of the article) when she became Jean-Louis Borlo’s wife. Valérie Trierweiler is still a journalist but doesn’t write about politic. It sounds like people don’t like when she is too active on Twitter and give her opinion. Audrey Pulvar (on the picture as well), Montebourg (Minister)’s partner is still working in a newspaper but is very criticised. Voilà pour mon petit commentaire…

  2. Alison Eastaway Oct 24, 2012 at 5:53 PM - Reply

    Thanks very much Emmanuelle for your comment! Indeed, I can understand the conflict of interest in these cases. You are correct, people seem to be reacting quite vehemently to Valérie’s opinions, which you can imagine may only be scrutinised that closely because of Hollande’s job. Interesting though how fascinated the public (myself included) is with knowing the intricate details of our politicians lives.

  3. francois roland Oct 26, 2012 at 9:00 AM - Reply

    In a talk on French bashing in USA, bill Maher (see the link below) Funnily stated that we French have a weird idea of privacy because we think it should be “private”! So yes we think that being in politics still authorize to have a private life and we are right on that.
    But to be clear on this, I think that the right of a politician to a private life stops when what he does in it directly impact the affairs of the state. For example I really didn’t give a shit of François Mitterand having a mistress. It was visibly an arrangement with his wife and it was nothing else than their business. But that he was mobilizing the expansive means of the French state to feed, bring up, and over protected the daughter he had with this mistress, here is what I disagreed with. And our journalists who where right not to tell us his “alcove secrets” were wrong to bereft us of the information on the way he was abusing of the state resources for his own private life.

    What really disturbs me in the Anglo-Saxon way is the intolerable moral or religious control over the politics or even the famous people. It’s really the rigid order of uptight moralistic people which try to impose itself not only to the leaders but through them, to the entire nation as well. If a politician cheats with his wife maybe he owes explanation and a making up to her but not to an entire nation. Now what the media often lose from sight is that not everyone is living in the world of Sleeping beauty and Prince charming. Some politicians can have affairs and not even being cheating on their wife. Because “cheating” it’s not having a free sexual life, it’s lying about it. Some people chose to live as free open couples and it really escapes me why the details of their behaviors should be exposed and stormed as not fitting the moralistic point of view of the silent majority.
    Bill Maher on France: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKS0yISz6xQ

  4. Fitz Oct 26, 2012 at 12:17 PM - Reply

    De temps en temps, j’ai l’impression qu’on habite une sorte de ‘ceinture biblique’/’zone de fondamentalistes religieux, ici aux Antipodes. Trop de politicards qui affichent une certaine satisfaction pieuse d’eux-mêmes afin de s’opposer aux mariages autres que du modèle ‘chrétien’.
    Il faut dire que chez les Anglo-Saxons, dont je suis un, y a eu un comportement ambigu. Je me souviens d’un film qui est sorti pendant les années 60 dont le titre était “No sex please; we’re British”, ce qui est censé faire allusion aux attitudes culturelles qui persistaient suite à l’époque victorienne. En revanche, ‘Old Blighty’ est réputé d’avoir tourné des séries de films genre “Carry On […]” qui se moquaient de ce snobbisme face aux attitudes libérées. Ici, on Oz, grace à qui que ce soit, On a vu à la télé des feuilletons comme “Number 96” et “The Box”.

  5. francois roland Oct 26, 2012 at 7:48 PM - Reply

    -> Fitz
    “Ici, on Oz,…” I suppose you wanted to say “Ici on ose…” like “here we have daring TV series anyway.”
    But sincerely, I don’t think that the fact of having sexually daring series change anything to the main issue of having an uptight moralistic caste using religion to shame, storm and control free thinking people.
    I know better the US case but it’s very significant. Of course they have incredible daring series regarding sex: The Sopranos, Hung, Californication, etc… and so what? The country is nevertheless under an incredible moralistic threat of public shaming for those who want to live their sex life outside the prescriptions of the Holy Writ. Just a few hallucinating examples:
    The definition of sex addiction in USA : In my book (Being French) I report having read under stunned eyes, on a kinda “sex help” US site, that a woman in her thirties (which they discussed the case) and living single, had a sex addiction issue because she was masturbating twice a day!
    The “abstinence only” apologists: Ludicrous but very powerful movement recommending (when not imposing) that teenagers fight their own biology until their early twenties if need be, so that they stay virgin until they hopefully cross the threshold of Holy Matrimony, and this with not a clue of an eventual functioning chemistry with the future spouse, of course!
    And there is all the people in position of fame, power etc… forced to apologize to the entire nation let alone resigning all the positions they held, not because they broke any law but just because they lived their sex lives in a way that is distasteful to this uptight moralistic people. One distressing case (distressing for the freedom of mind in USA) was this one of Antony Wiener, democrat congressman who finally had to resign all positions just to have send a sexting photo of his boxer puffed by his erected penis to a young woman.
    We could go on like that with multiple examples but the more distasteful to me is that those people who want to control US citizen under religious threats of another age, are not even themselves abiding to their own severe precepts. Let just mention that the US church had to pay real fortunes to the parents of all the children that they abused (can somebody tell me where is the crime: Showing a picture of your dick to another consenting adult, or abusing sexually a young child that you were trusted to educate?) And the cherry on top was reached by Jimmy Swaggart cheating on his wife, using prostitutes, and giving this disgusting show of deceiving and hypocrite religious poser (see the video link below) only because he was caught in the act and still wanted to continue being paid big money to be shaming and admonishing the sinners of this world. On what grounds damned! Gag me with a spoon.


  6. Fitz Oct 27, 2012 at 12:57 PM - Reply

    Mais non, François, le ‘O’ majuscule aurait dû indiquer le nom propre (surnom propre, plutôt)de “Oz” (Australie; à comparer la désignation populaire des habitants – les Aussies) – désolé, j’avais eu tort de présumer que bon nombre de Français jeunes connaissaient ce surnom, seulement d’après les jeunes touristes qui viennent à notre pays munis d’un visa de travail et à qui on avait déjà appris ce mot, évidemment. Aussi, ça témoigne d’un sens de l’humour [léger dans ce cas, je l’avoue]qui nous ont ménés à ’emprunter’ le mot “Oz” à la terre mythique du roman de Frank Baum (“The Wizard of Oz”, dont le fim est sorti en 1939 avec Judy Garland en vedette).
    Ces feuilletons que j’ai mentionnés, ce sont des émissions du passé; ça fait un bail qu’elles ont passé à la télévision mais, à l’époque, elles étaient en avance sur leur temps puisqu’on pouvait voir dans un nombre de scènes des acteurs à poil, ou en train de se baiser – et à part les puritains, personne n’a bronché. La plupart des téléspectateurs l’adoraient.
    Mais, de nos jours, on ne voit plus ça car on a adopté une propreté étouffante, c’est une sorte de ruée vers ce qui est politiquement correct. Heureusement, on a les shows de parodie qui se paient la tête des politicards. Je meurs d’envie de voir des sketchs qui désarçonnent ou démolissent les établissements religieux qui se croient au-dessus des lois. Pour ça, merci aux têtes sensées des États-Unis (comme les créateurs de ‘South Park’) qui ont déjà osé, heureusement, aborder de tels sujets avec une précision délicieuse!

  7. Alison Eastaway Oct 28, 2012 at 9:14 AM - Reply

    Merci Fitz et Francois pour vos commentaires. I’m very pleased to hear such impassioned views on the topic!

    Francois you make an excellent distinction that the private life of politicians becomes public business when affairs of the state are impacted. I suppose the grey area for some (in Australia, and perhaps the US and UK as well) is that we all have different perceptions about where that line is. Indeed, a robust discussion including the US perspective on this debate would require a great deal more than 600 words. 🙂

    Fitz also raises a good point, here in Australia we seem to be afflicted by a sort of political correctness similar to our UK counterparts that feeds the media frenzy whenever a politician acts in a way that doesn’t sit comfortably within that family values model. And to your point about TV series that poke fun at and make light of these attitudes, Australia and the UK certainly have not invented the wheel on political satire, but it does highlight that inherent Aussie quality of not taking anything too seriously.

  8. francois roland Oct 28, 2012 at 6:10 PM - Reply

    -> Fitz

    Merci Fitz 🙂 Pour moi jusqu’à présent Oz c’était soit le “Wizzard” soit la fameuse prison! 🙂 On en apprend chaque jour sur internet. Il me reste à comprendre comment les Australiens font pour marcher la tête en bas, mais ça c’est une autre histoire ! :))

    -> Alison

    That is my point precisely. As much as I am a defender of democracy and demanding in regard of politicians’ integrity when dealing with state affairs (and God knows how the Western world is permissive in that matter), I totally abhor any kind of moral ordrer in matter of personal way of living. Because what is the point of screaming “horror!” toward the attitude of Talibans, if by other means you act exactly the same in your own country (USA, Australia, whatever) and are in total disrespect of the freedom of consciousness of your countryfellows.
    As a case in hand if I were to live in USA I would feel my freedom of thinking constantly violated. I would have to see that my country “trust in a God” (that I don’t believe in for a sec), each time I buy something at the grocerie store, and I would have to bear that Bibles are constantly brought in courts, which are the last place where they should be, since no human justice should ever take in account what you believe in or what you don’t.

  9. edurne19 Nov 2, 2012 at 4:58 AM - Reply

    I can only agree with you on crêpes, nutella and carambars.

  10. Alison Eastaway Nov 2, 2012 at 8:23 AM - Reply

    Thanks Edurne19 – good to see we agree about the important things in life 🙂

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