Sexe et politique: What makes the French press so reluctant to report on the private lives of politicians?

This was originally submitted as my Honours dissertation in February 2013.

Despite having a reputation as the land of seduction, France has traditionally been uninterested in the sex lives of its politicians. There has been “a clear boundary between the private and public spheres…maintained in both politicians’ mediated communication and journalists’ coverage of political issues and personalities” (Kuhn, 2011:123). This has often led to the French news media failing to report on substantial stories relating to the private lives of its country’s high-ranking politicians. Whereas Britain’s tabloids, and increasingly its broadsheets too, are happy to pounce on the misdemeanors of the powerful for the sake of a good story, France has all too often maintained a respectful silence. Since the inception of the Fifth Republic, ‘remarkably little [was] published in French newspapers and magazines relating to the private lives of French public figures” (Trouille, 2000: 199). Yet in recent years there has been a shift towards the peoplisation, or celebritization, of French politics (Dakhlia, 2010) and with that the ‘clear boundary’ that has been respected for so long has begun to blur.

Dakhlia wrote of this process of peoplisation taking place over the course of the 2000s so it is perhaps fitting that the biggest intrusion into the private life of a French politician happened right at the start of the next decade. On the 14th May 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the IMF and a prospective Socialist presidential candidate, was arrested in New York, accused of sexual assault and attempted rape. It was not the first French sex scandal, and certainly won’t be the last. However, it is worth studying as the level of interest in the case was unprecedented and Jean Quatremer (2012) went so far as describing it as the final shattering of a decades observed taboo on the private lives of French politicians. He likens it to the ‘omertà’ typical of southern Italian mafia-type organisations. It is a deep rooted code of silence and honour than is not easily broken.

In order to understand the reasons behind this omertà and its subsequent breakdown we must first look at the norms of scandal; how France’s media system fits into a wider European context; and touch on what impact the media can have on democracy (Chapter One). Then we look at how politician’s private lives were reported until now, and then we can see if, and how, the DSK case was treated any differently by the French press (Chapters Two and Three). Finally, there have been four potential explanations for France’s press not publishing stories about the private lives of its politicians and each will be addressed in turn. They are Political, the News Media itself, Social and Legal respectively (Chapter Four).

Chapter One: Scandal, the media and democracy

Before we even begin to look at the reasons why the French press do not report on the private lives of politicians it is necessary to look at the potential implications for this stance and how it compares to other western democracies’ attitudes and norms. As the primary focus will be on Dominique Strauss-Kahn and then sex scandals more generally, it is going to be the sexual aspect of politician’s private lives that will be discussed in most depth here.

Scandals have “become the dominant feature of tabloid journalism” and “have vaulted tabloid values to the forefront of mainstream news practice” (Lull & Hinerman, 1997:1). Sex scandals are more likely to be featured in the tabloids than in the broadsheet newspapers and tabloids are not known for their reliable reporting and moral standing. This, coupled with the general awkwardness of discussing sex in a reasoned and responsible manner, with its complicated status as something to be taken both incredibly seriously and embarrassingly light-heartedly, mean that sex scandals rarely get the scholarly attention they deserve. “Scandal is viewed by many academic commentators as a subject too frivolous and a phenomenon too ephemeral to warrant serious and sustained attention” (Thompson, 1997: 36). The schadenfreude of previously powerful people brought low by something as trivial as sex is often takes precedent over the actual serious repercussions of such scandals. Thompson, writing in 1997, contends “that scandal is a more significant phenomenon than many commentators are inclined to assume.” In part, he has been proven right as with the advent of new technologies that both allow proofs to be leaked and also to be disseminated across the world, scandal has pervaded even more of our news culture than at his time of writing. However, its prevalence still doesn’t result it in much serious academic study.

Before going further, it is important to establish a working definition of ‘scandal.’ Thompson (1997: 39) refers to scandal as “actions or events involving certain kinds of transgression which become known to others and are sufficiently serious to elicit a public response.” West (2006: 6) defines it as “an event in which the public revelation of an alleged private breach of a law or a norm results in significant social disapproval or debate and, usually, reputational damage.” These definitions differ slightly but the important ideas to take from them are that something that was done in private and has now been revealed to the public and that some laws or norms have been transgressed. Not every instance of the French press reporting, or not reporting, on politicians’ private lives will be because of a ‘scandal,’ though the scandals that somehow slipped through the net and escaped publicity are going to be the ones that will be of most interest. The fact that scandal can be caused by the breaching of a norm rather than the breaking of a law makes it difficult to properly classify events as scandals when a similar event could take place in another culture and not be scandalous. However, it can often be as simple as “if the locals believe it to be one” to describe something as a scandal (West 2006: 7). If the society in which the event takes place believes it is scandalous, and the other criteria match up, then it is scandalous even if the same thing could happen somewhere else to little public outcry.

This is of particular relevance to the DSK affair as many more French commenters came out as apologists for his behaviour than in the USA where there was mostly outrage. That isn’t to say that all of France didn’t have an issue with his actions, just that a significant number of reactions were the opposite of how it was reported in the US. “Values and norms have differing degrees of what we would call “scandal sensitivity” depending on the social-historical context and the general moral and cultural climate of the time, and depending on the extent of which these values and norms matter to particular groups.” (Thompson, 1997). Thompson uses the example of Charles Parnell, an MP in Victorian Ireland and a leader of the Home Rule movement. His affair with Kitty O’Shea was particularly damaging as, at the time, adultery was condemned by the predominantly Catholic society in Ireland but also by the influential moral purity lobby within the Liberal Party. Parnell had been working on close ties with the Liberals in order to gain influence in his pursuit of Home Rule and his affair could not have come at a worse time. A simple case of infidelity resulted in political disgrace of a leading politician and the derailing of the Home Rule movement, which would have vast consequences for the island in the century to come. As The Times said of the affair at the time, “When the man of loose life is found out, he must take the consequences.” (1890; in Thompson, 1997).

Parnell and O’Shea in only one example of how scandal can ruin careers and bring broader political movements into disrepute. Various Conservative governments in 1980s and 1990s Britain were tainted by sex scandals, made all the more intriguing for the public due to the moral hypocrisy involved. The party is typically a defender of traditional values and of a stable nuclear family, and the various affairs including those of John Profumo, Cecil Parkinson and even John Major were highly embarrassing for the party. This was particularly awkward for Major and many in his cabinet as he had been a strong proponent of a ‘Back To Basics’ campaign promoting a return to these ‘traditional values’. Perhaps these scandals, though by no means restricted to the Conservative Party, have contributed to Britain becoming what Lyall (2004) says is the unofficial capital of the salacious politico-sexual scandal (cited in West, 2006). The USA is also a hotbed of gossip and scandal, with high profile cases such as Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky making headlines across the world. In the USA, scandal actually used to be a criminal charge equivalent to libel (West, 2006) though now it is most likely to just damage your career and personal life. This will be explored further in Chapters Two and Three, France’s culture of scandal is rather different to the typical Anglo-Saxon response. As we will see, scandal is less of a problem in France.

How scandal itself is defined across different cultures is worthy of its own study, but as we are focusing on France it is necessary to see how its media fits in with the other countries mentioned. One of the major attempts to conduct a comparative study of media systems using an analytical framework is Hallin and Mancini’s Three Models of Media and Politics (2004). They found three models of broadly similar characteristics and classified 18 western democracies into their respective model. The models are the “Mediterranean or Polarized Pluralist Model,” the “North Atlantic or Liberal Model” and the “North Central Europe or Democratic Corporatist Model.” The Mediterranean model consists of countries Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece and it is into this group that France fits. The countries from this model are supposed to share low newspaper circulation which is in turn mainly elite and politically oriented. There is also strong state intervention; high political parallelism; external pluralism; commentary-oriented journalism; and weaker professionalization.

Contrast this to the North Atlantic Model (Britain, United States, Canada and Ireland) with its mainly neutral, early developed, mass-circulation commercial press (now medium circulation); information-oriented journalism; strong professionalization; self-regulation; and market dominated rather than state influenced agendas. The final model, the Northern European, contains countries like Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states. These countries have high newspaper circulation with external pluralism, a historically strong party press and more neutral commercial press, strong professionalization, strong state intervention and strong public service broadcasting. These Models all overlap in parts and there are exceptions in every category. This is best shown by this diagram from Hallin and Mancini’s book.

Source: Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 70.

As we can see, Hallin and Mancini had trouble placing France into one of their distinct models. Even the common idea of an ‘Anglo-American’ model of journalism is only justified up to a point, as “Britain could actually be conceived as lying somewhere between the ideal type of the Liberal Model and the Democratic Corpo-mixed Model that prevails in Northern Continental Europe.” To confuse things further, they write that “France is also a mixed case, and can be conceived as lying between the Polarized Pluralist and Democratic Corporatist models” (both Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 69).

France was actually the “paradigm case” on which the rest of the Southern European region was based but it has turned away from this recent years. It is now only a “marginal case.” They explain that now “France is an exception in important ways, characterized by a polarized pluralism and a strong role of the state, certainly, and by a history of strong political parallelism in the media, but also by stronger industrialization and stronger development of the mass-circulation press and of rational-legal authority.” In particular, this stronger mass-circulation press will come into play when discussing the France’s similarities to Anglo-Saxon media in later chapters. The strong role of the state is also important in relation to the respect for privacy.

France may be exceptional, but it still has to have close ties to the Mediterranean Model to be classed as such. Hallin and Mancini justify their decision with these two main reasons:

“First, we believe that the tendency for the media to be dominated by the political sphere that is characteristic of the Polarized Pluralist systems is strong enough in French media history that France fits this model closer than any other. Second, there is a strong and direct historical connection between the French media and those of other Southern European countries.” (2004:90)

This historical connection alludes to the strong forces of the ancien régime — “the landholding aristocracy, the absolutist state, and the Catholic or Orthodox church” (2004:89) that held power in Southern Europe. These powers will help explain some of the cultural norms in Chapter Four.

Merely pointing out France’s exceptionalism is not enough. The way the press conducts itself has an effect on democracy and it is important to establish what the the repercussions of a press that ignores politician’s private lives are. France is often contrasted to the ‘Anglo-American’ model of journalism but there are limits to the usefulness of this. As was shown by Hallin and Mancini, there are actually a lot of similarities between the countries’ media systems but in any case the differences or similarities can only go so far in explaining the reasons for the silence of the French media on the subject of politicians private lives.

The actual real world implications from this behaviour is the main purpose for any study and these will now be addressed before taking a closer look at France and then at any possible explanations. It is important not to lose sight as to why such a study is even warranted. Ihe impact on democracy that any silence on the part of the French media has is the main context in which this is written and that must remain in focus.

The media has traditionally played an important role in democracies as it acts as a mediator between the public and those in power. However, with the rise in the influence of NGOs and with social media increasingly doing the traditional print media’s job, “the media are now merely one among a number of institutions, agencies, and actors mediating between government and governed” (Curran, 2005). “The relationship between democracy, on the one hand, and media and journalism, on the other,can be described in terms of a social contract. “According to this view, media and journalism require democracy as it is the only form of government that respects freedom of speech, expression and information, and the independence of media from the state” (Stromback, 2005: 332).

“Media and journalism are often criticized for their content and their negative effects on some aspects of democracy” (Stromback, 2005: 331). This can be for many reasons including the undemocratic influence that some media outlets have over policy makers. “The central role of the state in Mediterranean media systems has historically limited the tendency of the media to play the “watchdog” role so widely valued in the prevailing liberal media theory” (Hallin and Mancini, 2004: 122). This is worrying for democracy as the media fulfils its role in the social contract in part “by acting as a watchdog against abuse of power in politics and other parts of society” Stromback, 2005: 332). Democracy needs an independent watchdog to challenge power and provide information to the citizens.When the state is a major player in the media market, whether directly owning television stations and newspapers or by having close social ties between politicians and media proprietors (see chapter Four), this can bring into question the impartiality of this watchdog.

The role (and roles) of the media in democracies is a complex one, and not the focus of this research. However, it is important to keep in mind this particular ‘watchdog’ role when discussing the French media’s reluctance to report on the private lives of politicians and whether it is fully able to fulfil and impartial role when there are so many other factors involved. This chapter has provided the context in which norms about privacy in the French media are situated. Attitudes towards scandal; the Mediterranean Model (or otherwise) of Media; and the role of the media in democracy are all worth acknowledging when investigating the French press.

Chapter Two: Sex, politics and the press in France

Although perhaps not to the same extent as politicians in the US or the UK, French politicians have still utilised their private personas in the public sphere. There is a difference between “personalized self-disclosure” (Stanyer, 2013) and the invasion of a politician’s private life by journalists. “In France…political journalists have often been privy to any extra-marital indiscretions of politicians but have not tended to report them” (Kuhn, 2004). Yet this happens alongside gossip magazines such as VSD, Closer and Voici that will happily publish pictures of Ségolène Royal in a bikini during the run up to the 2007 elections (Dakhlia, 2010). Kuhn (2004) argues that the existence of such high selling scandal magazines like Voici changes nothing. “This prurient interest by sections of the mass audience in the sexual behaviour of public figures is not carried over into judgements about their overall suitability for public responsibilities.”

Though it could be argued that these scandal and gossip magazines do in fact have an impact on the way politicians are reported. There maybe this clear distinction between the public and the private, but as Kuhn later suggested (2011), as “the French public have been exposed to more information about the private lives of some of their leading politicians…this has stimulated an appetite for such information among at least some of the electorate.” The more the French public see of their politicians’ intimate moments, the more they will be invested in the narratives that the news media chooses to apply to these politicians. There is now a tension between what is definitely private, and what is possibly isn’t private but will sell magazines anyway. As more and more of the electorate want to know things, the more we will see published.

With this increased pressure for the media to give the consumers what they want it becomes more difficult to manage what information gets out. A positive media image is of the utmost importance to politicians in western democracies and they work hard to establish which “personal values, capabilities and competences…to present to the electorate” (Kuhn, 2011: 121). This goes back as far as Charles de Gaulle, who was the first French politician to recognise that television would be useful for symbolic image construction (Kuhn, 2004), though this does not mean that he used his personal life to make political capital (Kuhn, 2011). Another president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, did however. He was the first major candidate to use his wife and family as an integral part of his electoral marketing…” and sought hard to soften his image and come across as a man of the people (Kuhn, 2011:125).

Trouille (2000) notes at the start of this chapter that there are three exceptions to her claim that little was published about politicians private lives, and d’Estaing is the first of the three. He was the subject of a minor scandal in 1974 when he was found to be disappearing at night and coming home to the Elysée Palace in the early hours of the morning. Michel Rocard is the second politician to be seen as an exceptional case, though this time he personally disclosed details of his divorce in an interview with Le Point in 1991. He is of interest here especially because he had expressed his hope in the same interview that his privacy would respected and added, “We are fortunate enough not to experience the American syndrome, where the private lives of any public figures are exposed in the minutest detail.” (Le Point, 2 Nov. 1991; cited by Trouille, 2000: 200).

The third of these exceptions is perhaps the most famous of all pre-DSK scandals that have captured the imagination of the French people; Francois Mitterrand and his secret family. Mitterrand was President from 1981 until 1995 and his “political image was overwhelmingly constructed around his public persona.” This was “an enforced choice because of the complicated nature of his long-running extramarital relationship” which has been described as “the most notorious example of media’s reticence in the face of a politician’s extramarital affair” (Kuhn, 2011). For the vast majority of his presidency, the French public were unaware of the fact that he had a daughter, Mazarine, or that she was by his secret mistress, Anne Pingeot, even though “in journalistic circles the relationship had been an open secret” (Trouille, 2000). In November 1994, the magazine Paris Match published a photo showing Mitterrand with Anne and Mazarine and although the media already knew the details of the relationship it was still seen as an invasion of privacy. Such thoughts were banished upon Mitterrand’s later death when both women attended his funeral.

At this point in time, Mitterrand was very ill with cancer and it has been suggested that the press felt that his weakened physical state corresponded with a weakness of his political power and seized the opportunity to publish the details against his will. Also, Mazarine was now of an age that she did not fall under the protection of being a minor and could be named. The President’s worries about this information coming into public knowledge was one of the motivations behind his anti-terrorism spy cell that he set up in the early 1980s. It was used for keeping a check on various journalists and lawyers, and the case against him ran into the 2000s when it was finally settled in court.

That Mitterrand had a mistress during his presidency is not important. In fact, the practice of keeping a mistress is so ingrained in French society that is probably would not have been that much of a problem had it come to light earlier during his presidency, even if the existence of his daughter was also revealed. Kuhn (2011) suggests that Mazarine’s big reveal was actually orchestrated in order to give a more positive framing to the last days of Mitterrand’s presidency after he had been linked to the collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War. What at first seemed like a father taking responsibility for the welfare of his daughter and journalists maintaining an admirable silence about this ‘second family’ was quickly sullied by the fact that the money that funded this extra-security and the paranoid spy-ring came from the public purse (Kuhn, 2011). It is when the private sex lives cross over into matters of the public interest like in this instance that journalists finally feel like they can break their silence, even if “the onus is on the media to prove that the intrusion is in the public interest” (Esser & Hartung, 2004; Holtz-Bacha, 2004; cited in Stanyer, 2013). Chemin and Catalano (2005) argue that some journalists actually colluded with the Elysée to keep the relationship a secret (cited in Kuhn, 2011). Kuhn summarizes the Mitterrand case as being “a prime example of journalists failing to bring information of public interest into the mediated public sphere.”

Exposing hypocrisy is another justification for an invasion of politician’s private lives, especially when a politician’s campaign has been run on a particular public platform that hasn’t been observed in the private sphere. “If politicians are prepared to use their private lives to enhance their image, can they really complain about invasion of privacy when the media uncover a less than wholesome side to their private lives?” (Fonseca, 1992). This brings to mind the hypocrisy of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing who had based his campaign on his private life before his nighttime distractions were discovered. More recently, and coinciding with Dakhlia’s study of the peoplisation of the 2000s, Jacques Chirac was rumoured to have regular mistresses and there were even jokes (or rumours) about the very short affairs he would have with various female members of his staff. These were immortalized by the infamous line used by those who worked with the president, “Trois minutes douche comprisé!” — “Three minutes, shower included!” (Rayski, 2011). This conflicts with the family image he portrayed of himself during the 2002 re-election campaign when he benefitted from his wife publishing a best selling book about their life a couple and appearing on chat shows.

Chirac’s use of his family is nothing compared to his that of his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. He openly used his private life for political gain and “the extent to which he exploited his spouse and family was considered groundbreaking in a French context” (Kuhn, 2010 and 2011; in Stanyer, 2013). Kuhn attributes his electoral victory in 2007 to his mastery of the media environment, establishing a mutual dependency with broadcasters even while servings as Minister of the Interior from 2002–07. Despite Ségolène Royal’s attempts to feminize herself and even wear white to contrast herself against the “whiff of scandal and corruption” attached to the french political elite (Kuhn, 2011:136), Sarkozy managed to impose himself on the media in such a way that he actually had the largest quantitative media impact, higher even than Chirac or Prime Minister de Villepin at the time (Girard, 2007; cited in Kuhn, 2011). “Sarkozy’s image management and the publication of intimate aspects of his private life, appear to constitute evidence that here too France has fallen significantly into line with the norms and practices of celebrity politics found in other western democracies.” (Kuhn, 2011)”

In most western democracies, when a political scandal is made public there is usually a media debate on the possible implications of what has happened and how it reflects on society. Sometimes laws are changed and people resign, but generally life continues as normal after the hubbub dies down and the largest contribution such debates have had is to create a mountain of op-ed pieces. “In France, as revelations of infidelity have largely been absent, so have such debates, but this does not mean they do not occur when such exposés arise.” (Stanyer, 2013) One exposé that inspired such a debate was the arrest and subsequent trial of Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Chapter Three: DSK

After establishing the recent history of the reporting private lives of French politicians and the occasional sex scandal, we can now see the context in which Dominique Strauss-Kahn fits into. “Because scandal is often about an allegation and not actual conduct, what matters is less the facts than their representation” (West, 2006:5). Whether DSK, as he is widely known, was guilty of everything he was accused of or not is irrelevant here; what is of more interest is how it brought his sexual past to light and tainted his reputation from then on. The case also had the result of journalists who were previously on good terms with him breaking the ‘contract’ and reporting in his private life when normally they wouldn’t have.As Oscar Wilde said, “What is said of a man is nothing. The point is who says it.” (in West, 2006). In the weeks that followed his arrest, a shocking amount of old stories were brought back into the light and his private life was subjected to scrutiny of a level previously unseen in regard to any French politician. Why were such stories hidden before long and why did it take this particular event to bring them into the public sphere?

Strauss-Kahn had been an important figure in French politics for close to thirty years. A former university lecturer, he was first elected to Parliament in 1986 and was eventually made Minister of Economy and Finance under Lionel Jospin. He went on to be one of the senior figures in the Parti Socialiste, coming second to Ségolène Royal in the primaries for the Socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential election. Despite losing to her, DSK was one of the senior politicians who drew up Royal’s manifesto in that same election. Very critical of the party when Royal eventually lost to Sarkozy, DSK left the party’s directorate soon after but stayed a member of the party itself. He then took over as the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund in 2007, with the personal recommendation of Nicolas Sarkozy. His work at the IMF and his general reputation as one of the leaders of the PS led to many tipping him to be the Socialist candidate to run against Sarkozy in 2012.

DSK’s presidential ambitions came to a sudden end when he was arrested on the 14th May 2011 in New York, accused of sexual assault and attempted rape of a hotel chambermaid, Nafissatou Diallo. He formally stepped down from his position at the IMF four days later and this effectively put a halt to any chances of running for president the following year. The ensuing scandal swept the world and his career was left in tatters as a result.

“Scandals are often messy affairs because… a specific transgression may lie at the origin of a particular scandal and may form the attention, but the unfolding sequence of actions and events may shift the focus elsewhere, in such a way that the initial transgression is overshadowed by other concerns” (Thompson, 1997). This scandal fit this pattern rather well, although the original New York case did remain the focus, and although he was later cleared of the charges, many other scandalous stories came to light in the following weeks. Part of the traditional normative accord between journalists and politicians in France is that sexual relationships, including marital infidelity, belong to the private sphere and are off-limits to media coverage. (Kuhn, 2011) This scandal cast this aside and tore into DSK’s personality in way that was unprecedented in the French press. Although the case was eventually dismissed due to a lack of credibility in the accuser’s testimony, DSK’s reputation lay in tatters. The sheer volume of accusations, be they genuine or simply rumours, snowballed into an insurmountable attack on his character than no politician could expect to recover from no matter their actual professional competency.

In France, he became the subject of “a widespread debate about the sexual behaviour of the political class, and initiated a discussion of rape and sexual harassment in the workplace” (Stanyer, 2013: 165). Outside of France he was at the centre of a media storm that took in everything from the credibility of his accuser to the possibility that the whole affair was a conspiracy organised by the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet despite the blanket coverage all around the world, there was a real chance that the story would have been suppressed had he been arrested in France (Quatremer, 2012). The journalistic and political elites in Paris had known of DSK’s character for years yet were content to keep quiet and as a result many potentially damaging stories had been stifled. Even if such rumours did become public the press did very little further investigation. So when he was actually arrested in New York it came as a shock to everyone but the journalists reporting it. The fact that it was first published by an American newspaper (Quatremer, 2012) meant that the French press had to react rather than drive the story themselves; the damage had already been done by the New York press. Of course, with internet access, everyone in France already had access to the American news coverage anyway. Stanyer reminds us that French courts cannot prevent foreign news outlets from publishing sensitive information about a French politician anyway (2013).

Once this taboo had started slipping it wasn’t long before it disappeared completely and all manner of stories about Strauss-Kahn came out. The weeks following his arrest resulted in a flurry of lurid accusations and stories about his sexual activity over the years as newspapers attempted to shed light on the previously buried details. Jean Quatremer (2012) contends that as soon as DSK was arrested he lost his power (both literally as he had to step down as head of the IMF, and figuratively as he had now lost the world’s respect, no matter the outcome in his trial) and this is why the media felt that they could take him apart. The sheer volume of stories was unprecedented.

Before long, the entire world knew of the story. Kantar Media released a study detailing the ‘Media Impact Index’ of Strauss-Kahn and it found that in the week following his arrest he was the most famous person in the world in terms of mentions in the world’s press (Kantar Media, 2011.) In fact, his score was the highest ever recorded (since the index started in 2000), comfortably higher than both Obama and Sarkozy’s election victories and the Japan earthquake in 2011. From a press that has been traditionally reluctant to report on these private matters, such a figure is all the more impressive. The international aspect to the story obviously contributed to it’s wide impact, but even within France it was unprecedented. Kantar Media found that between the 15th and 22nd of May 2011, every French person over the age of 15 came into contact with the story 137 times.

As we will saw earlier in this chapter, before the true extent of DSK’s womanising came to light in the wake of his arrest there was already a long history of scandal among the French political elite. Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois had attempted to break the taboo of talking about these scandals with Sexus Politicus which was published in 2006. It discussed the link between sex and power and exposes the various extra-marital affairs and scandals that have engulfed French politicians over the years. It even revealed details about DSK and features interviews with his wife about his womanizing. Despite the book being a success they remained quiet on the information that was revealed about DSK (Deloire, 2011). “A book, even if it sells well, is not a newspaper or a television.” Sexus Politicus remained an anomaly within the French press and it didn’t encourage journalists to do their jobs (Quatremer, 2012:12). This book is therefore proof that the media was aware of DSK’s womanising yet never took the time to fully investigate him to see if there was any truth to the rumours. “Private lives were still taboo.”

It is not simply that the events themselves are worth reporting on, it is that the press has a responsibility to get to the truth of the matter and establish what the actual facts are. If such rumours are reported irresponsibly, or are ignored by the mainstream media, then they run the risk of being held up as fact and the public could take these rumours as reasons not to vote for a particular candidate. Even though most journalists knew that DSK was of a possibly dangerous sexuality, “they not only only said nothing, but even refrained from investigating to distinguish between rumours and facts.” (Quatremer, 2012:11) In the wake of the DSK scandal, Christophe Deloire has said that it is the journalist’s’ duty to refrain from spreading rumours and that leaving rumours to go unchecked is just as much of a mistake as spreading them in the first place (2011).

Even Strauss-Kahn’s now ex-wife, Anne Sinclair, was aware of his reputation and yet this wasn’t seen to be an issue. Back when he was planning on running for president in 2007, Sinclair boasted that she was “rather proud” of her husband’s reputation as a ladies man. He was known as a chaud lapin (hot rabbit) and as The Great Seducer (Gibbs, 2011). She explained that, “it’s important for a man in politics to be able to seduce.” In the wake of his arrest and these sorts of stories reaching a wider audience for the first time, many commentators were left wondering how such a man “with so little judgement, so little honour, could rise to such heights” (Gibbs, 2011). Put simply, “the citizens didn’t have the right to know.” (Quatremer, 2012:12).

Unfortunately, DSK wasn’t only being accused of being a ‘Great Seducer’. Tristine Banon is a journalist who claimed that DSK tried to rape her in 2002 and this quickly became one of the biggest stories surrounding his ongoing case in New York. She originally made the allegations on TV in 2007 but DSK’s name had been bleeped out whenever he was mentioned and Banon was eventually persuaded not to press charges by her mother, a socialist politician herself (Lichfield, 2011) . It was later revealed that Banon’s mother had previously had sex with DSK herself, and the resulting allegations and back and forth added yet more intrigue to the case, propelling it ever further into the public’s consciousness.

Many more women gave interviews detailing various alleged assaults and affairs (Rainey, 2011). An economist wrote a letter to the IMF investigators saying, “I fear that this man has a problem that, perhaps, made him unfit to lead an institution where women work under his command.” A young journalist claimed he tried to rip off her clothes when she went to interview him. A female lawmaker vowed not be alone in a room with him again after he groped her (all mentioned in Gibbs, 2011). Gradually this narrative of DSK being sexually aggressive was built upon and became the dominant focus of the case in the eyes of the world’s media. The actual facts of the case being investigated became secondary to the juicy gossip bringing down a once powerful politician. The ‘affaire DSK’ had it all; sex, money and power.

This all seems very reminiscent of the journalists who kept Mitterrand’s secrets secret and it’s almost no surprise that history was repeating itself. But the same question remains, why was there this silence for so long? At the time of writing, “Mr Strauss-Kahn still faces up to 20 years in prison over his alleged role in a sprawling group sex vice racket. He is also accused of knowing that fraudulently obtained money from businessmen friends was used to fund the network.” (Samuel, 2013) This only came to light after his arrest in New York. The 14th May will remain a “black mark” in the history of French journalism as it went to show the true extent of how much had previously gone unreported about this man despite the clear need for an investigation (Quatremer, 2012:76).

Chapter Four: Why the silence?

Having seen the extent of the silence around particular cases we can now explore the reasons why the French press are so reluctant to report on these stories. To reiterate what Jean Quatremer was quoted as saying in Chapter Two, the DSK scandal is perhaps the turning point in French journalism and the final breaking of a decades long taboo. However, there has been talk for years about the influence of other countries’ media, particularly the USA’s, on France. Bertrand and Bordat’s 1987 book, Les médias americains en France: Influence et pénetration discusses how the country had been “coca-colinisée” by America for some time already. As we have seen, there have been individual events that have challenged this taboo before now. However, none of these scandals received anywhere near as much coverage as the DSK case. To the public in countries used to such media intrusion the level of coverage did not seem unreasonable, so it is therefore necessary to investigate the reasons why this jarred with the traditional manner in which the French press would report (or not) on a politician’s private life.

There are various actors with stakes in the publication of details of politician’s private lives and their interests, combined with the complicated social and historical context, results in a media culture that was reluctant to report on otherwise important matters. Raymond Kuhn (2011) writes, “The traditional French approach to the management of the public/private interface in the mediatization of elite politicians was based on a shared understanding of certain practices and norms of behaviour among three sets of actors.” These actors are politicians and their support staff, the media and the public. Rather than one of these actors wilfully distorting the facts or burying a particular story for its own gain Kuhn suggests that there is a ‘shared understanding’ between all three that has each actor acting in their own interests.

Politicians want to control their image and prevent anything private affecting this yet the media wants as much access to these politicians as possible. This results in a compromise between the two and journalists are given ever more access in return for an understanding about what stories to print. On top of this, the French public just don’t have the same interest in their politician’s private lives, although it could be argued that this has changed with the advent of celebrity culture and the influence of the Anglo-Saxon gossip magazines. Each of these actors will be addressed in turn, although Kuhn goes on to say that “this shared understanding between politicians, news media and the public was in turn shored up by a fourth factor, namely the existence of some of the toughest privacy legislation to be found in any western society” (Kuhn, 2011). This legislation will also be taken into account and it is perhaps the main factor that preserves this French exceptionalism.


Any news coverage of the private lives of politicians starts with the politicians themselves. This may seem like stating the obvious but, as noted in Chapter Two it has often been a choice by the particular politicians involved to expose their lives to media. Of course there are times when the media intrudes without their consent. However, even this non consensual intrusion into politicians’ lives comes from a public interest angle. It could be argued that the more a politician allows his or her life to be used as part of political marketing, the more interest the public will have in other aspects of their lives as a result. Holidays or private dinners that would have previously gone unremarked on are now the subject of paparazzi photos and gossip, precisely because these politicians have given the public an appetite for more. This was not always the case, and there used to be a mutual understanding between politicians and journalists.

Simply put, “politicians did not seek to project their private lives into the private realm.” (Kuhn, 2011:122). However, there has been a shift towards the personalisation of politics as technological change has brought about new ways of communication with the electorate as well as better access to the politicians themselves. “Many elite politicians now place selected aspects of their private lives into the public sphere under conditions that they try to control as much as possible.” (Kuhn, 2011). Politicians can use facets of their personalities to appeal to voters and reflect their campaign promises and to draw attention to their particular qualities that would be of use while in office. “In all western democracies a positive media image is important to elite politicians” and they work hard to establish which “personal values, capabilities and competences…to present to the electorate” (Kuhn, 2011:121). While the Anglophone countries and much of the western world have long been accustomed to this use of image projection and the blurring of the public and the private, France has been the exception until relatively recently.

Mediatization is only a small part of a larger process of political marketing which works to create an image or version of a particular candidate that is more appealing to voters. The politician’s admirable and sympathetic traits are emphasised (Kuhn, 2011). This is partly why politicians became more open to the idea of allowing their campaigns to become more personalised. The benefit gained from attracting voters should offset any concern over now having less privacy as a result. Of course this can backfire horribly when the press delve too deep. In a political and media landscape that once had clear rules over what was public and what should remain private there was little issue with what newspapers printed. Now however, personalisation has gone too far, but is this still justified?

Sally White argues that it depends on the particular situation and who is involved. “In the normal course of events I do not think it is relevant what a politician’s friendships or love affairs or marital status or sexual preference is. However, if there is an indication that that particular friendship, love affair or sexual preference lays that person open to undue influence in the performance of [his or her] public duty, then it is legitimate to report it.” (in Fonseca, 1992) In countries with a strong tabloid culture such as the UK, this is rarely what happens. Stories run that have little legitimate public interest and are used mainly to sell more newspapers.

In France, “News of affairs only surfaces in contexts where it is legitimate to raise it” (Stanyer, 2013). This means that stories that on face value do not seem to be relevant to the public, except for their voyeuristic value, only get published whenever this is a wider context to them, such as financial impropriety or some other legal issue. Stanyer gives the example of Jacques Chirac’s rumoured affair with a Japanese translator that resulted in an illegitimate child. This was never really addressed as the story began and ended with this woman and didn’t seem to have any wider context other than infidelity to the press left it alone and it remained rumours. This contrasts with Roland Dumas’ affair with Christine Deviers-Joncour which was made public, though only after a long going investigation into financial corruption. Fréderic Mitterrand’s homosexuality was initially kept private and only reported on in the context of revelations that some of his lovers may have been under age (Stanyer, 2013).

All this would suggest that so long as the politicians themselves keep their side of the deal (behaving properly) then there shouldn’t be any real reason to report on the more intimate aspects of their lives in the first place. However, once a politician opens their lives up to media scrutiny in a misguided attempt to get more coverage and then more votes, then they cannot be too angry when it backfires on them and the journalists do indeed give them more coverage. Mediatization is a double-edged sword.

What is often neglected is that the media and political elites are entwined to an almost “hilarious” degree (Kuper, 2012). Kuhn notes, “Affairs of the heart, including marriages, between politicians (male) and journalists (female) are not uncommon: Dominique Strauss-Kahn/Anne Sinclair, Jean-Louis Borloo/Béatrice Schonberg and Francois Baroin/Marie Drucker are some recent examples of interlinkages between the two milieus.” (2011:111) Even the current president, Francois Hollande, separated from his long term partner Ségolène Royal, and is now with Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist. Quatremer exclaims that “such a display of complicity is unthinkable in a normal democracy” (2012:106). Quatremer exclaims that “such a display of complicity is unthinkable in a normal democracy” (2012:106)

News Media

So if the politicians keep up their side then the news media will continue to keep quiet and view certain parts of their lives as ‘off-limits’ (Kuhn, 2004 & 2007). This aspect of French media culture is possibly the most interesting reason for the silence as it seems the most conspiratorial. “Even where it could be argued that certain aspects of what politicians sought to retain in the private sphere might well have merited media coverage in the public interest, news outlets frequently imposed on themselves an embargo of self-restraint” (Kuhn, 2011:122). Though this still doesn’t explain why they are restraining themselves.

“Top French journalists are often products of the same elite schools as many French government leaders. These journalists do not necessarily regard their primary role as to check the power of government. Rather, many see themselves more as intellectuals, preferring to analyze events and influence readers more than to report events.”

Diplomatic cable from the American Ambassador in Paris, 11 June 2006–07PARIS306 (in Quatremer, 2012:9)

This suggests the level of interconnectedness among the French media elite and senior politicians as one of the reasons why certain stories get buried or certain events do not get covered in an adequate way. The implication is that if these journalists are old friends of the politicians then their analysis and opinion pieces could be biased. Without actual neutral reportage, readers are left with potentially skewered stories that intend to ‘influence readers more than report events.’

This suspicion is confirmed by Pierre Albert. “France has always been more a journalism of expression than a journalism of observation: it gives precedence to the chronicle and the commentary over summary and reportage. As much as in the presentation of facts, it has always been interested in the exposition of ideas… In this, it is fundamentally different from Anglo-Saxon journalism, for which news has priority over commentary.” (1983, cited in Hallin and Mancini, 2004). Hallin and Mancini conducted research on this potential lean towards opinion rather than reporting and found that, compared to the New York Times at least, the main French newspapers did indeed contain more background, interpretation and opinion pieces than actual reporting of the facts of a story.

Source: Hallin and Mancini, 2004:99

A potential explanation for this comes from Ferenczi (1993). He argues that when mass circulation press developed in France, “key elements of the news- and information-based Anglo-Saxon model were embraced” (in Hallin and Mancini, 2004). Although the continuing emphasis on commentary and opinion meant that a distinct French style remained, the Anglo-Saxon influence could be seen. There has been an uptake of investigative and information-oriented journalism in recent decades but the French press clearly puts “more emphasis on background, interpretation and opinion” and stories are “more likely to involve policy advocacy or value judgements about political actions.” (Hallin and Mancini, 2004)

Another reason that newspapers sit on stories could be the possibility that reporting on politician’s private lives could be damaging for your career (Stanyer, 2013). In 2004, the editor of Paris Match was fired for putting Nicolas Sarkozy’s then-wife Cecilia on its cover with her lover (Dakahlia, 2010; cited in Stanyer 2013). In 2010, there were rumours that both Sarkozy and his second wife Carla Bruni were having affairs of their own (with Chantal Jouanno and Benjamin Biolay respectively). Almost all the French newspapers ignored these rumours except for Le Journal du Dimanche which subsequently apologised to the President. The journalist responsible and his boss were fired (Kirby, 2010; cited in Stanyer, 2013). Despite all of this “the global news interest meant that the story could not be ignored as the President wished, and it was eventually reported in the French media” (Stanyer, 2013). This is reminiscent of the DSK case, whereby the allegations were already being published in America, and therefore on the internet too, and the French press had to play catch up or risk being left behind.

All of this would suggest that journalists really don’t have any autonomy when it comes to both selecting what stories to report on and then the angle in which they write about them. Hallin and Mancini use the example of the famous Italian journalist, Pansa (1977), who described himself as the giornalista dimezzato — the journalist cut in half — as he felt he belonged half to himself and half to outside powers such as media owners, financial backers and politicians. This could also be said of journalists in France who are also cut in half, with their other half belonging to the elites who hold influence. Be they old friends who use their personal relationships to control stories, or the very small group of private owners who control much of France’s commercial media, journalists are rarely able to express themselves fully. This is probably true of all professional news media the world over but it is especially true for France (and other Southern European countries.)

The actual media traditions in France also explain why there is a lack of stories concerning politician’s private lives in newspapers. There is an “absence of a popular title with tabloid journalistic values: France notably lacks the equivalent of The Sun in Britain or Bild in Germany” (Kuhn, 2011) but it did have Le Parisien, which his since repositioned itself as a respectable paper for the Paris region, and France Soir, though it “has declined substantially in circulation since the 1980s.” “Neither Le Parisien nor France Soir was ever as sensationalist as British tabloids” (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). With no real tabloids to publish these sorts of stories then it is left to the more traditionally high-quality newspapers to cover them, and there are many reasons why they would be reluctant to do so.

Marcela Iacub, an ex-lover of DSK, published a novel supposedly based on her time with him. Belle et Bete, was published in February 2013 and it was serialised in the Nouvel Observateur, a high-end news magazine. This caused problems for the personalities involved who didn’t come out of the book very well, including DSK himself and even his wife Anne Sinclair. However, it may well turn out to be Nouvel Obs who does the worst out of this as Strauss-Kahn has threatened legal action. This is a classic example of everything that has been discussed so far. A traditionally respectful media outlet suddenly turning its back on an elite politician and publishing potentially illegal revelations about his private life. Agnes Poirier said of the book, “France has a long tradition of justifying moral transgressions in the name of art, talent and intelligence” (2013). This wouldn’t be much of a problem in the US or the UK but in France, such a situation is big news even in itself.

There may not be any real tabloid press, but there are indeed gossip magazines. They are a relatively recent addition to the French market. There is also a big market for the “photonews weekly Paris Match and celebrity magazines such as Gala which allow politicians to market themselves to audiences under conditions of ‘controlled mediation’.” (Kuhn, 2011) These magazines would rarely cause any scandal as they rely on the the politicians themselves to give them access to their lives, so they would not wish to upset anyone for fear of losing future scoops. However, it was indeed Paris Match who published the first pictures of Mazarine Mitterrand though, as we have seen, this may have been part of the ailing Francois Mitterrand’s plan to improve his public image before his death.

The Public

One of the most simple reasons for this media silence, yet possibly the hardest to define, comes from the public themselves. They form the market for the news media and the voters for the politicians so therefore hold a lot of sway over what gets published. Put simply, traditionally “public life and private life are quite separate; being slightly less than truthful about events occurring in one’s private life is considered completely irrelevant to one’s role in public office. The private and public do not mix.” (Trouille, 2000:199). There just wasn’t a useful market for the sorts of stories mentioned in Chapter Two.

The social culture of the respective countries plays a huge part in shaping how the press reacts to stories and also in relation to how much politicians think they can get away with. For example, according to 60 Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong by Jean Benoit Nadeau (2003), the French truly believe that sex is a private matter. There is a lot of literature on this supposed respect for privacy and it could go so far as explaining the reasons why the press do not report quite so much on politicians. France also seems to have a more liberal attitude to sex itself, and this is also explored in the book. Sexism is rampant in a lot of French society, and this combined with a general openness about sex allows the public, politicians and yes, journalists, to downplay any potential scandals. In the case of DSK, many commentators excused his actions as just what was to be expected. In fact, “the dismissive and macho reactions of some of [France’s] male politicians” (Yvette Roudy in Lichfield, 2011) actually prompted many French women to come forward with their own complaints of sexism. “The DSK case revealed the divide between American puritanism and French gallantry” (Aeschimann, 2011). Such a response was typical of the French media in response to his arrest in 2011 and sums up the transatlantic divide in opinion.

“There is also a widespread acceptance in French society that the sexual orientation and behaviour of public figures form part of their private realm” (Kuhn, 2004) and “refuses to indulge in spreading the sleaze which has become a feature of Anglo-Saxon politics” (Trouille, 2000:206). However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the French don’t enjoy reading scandal or gossip magazines. It is just that this interest does not translate into votes and therefore the main press have little need for such stories. “French public opinion did not consider a politician’s private life to be an appropriate matter for media scrutiny or a relevant criterion in electoral evaluation” (Kuhn, 2011:123) and so it is therefore of little relevance to those who set the news agenda. Of course, there is still money to be made in printing a scandal, though the other factors covered in this chapter all come together to dissuade most publications from printing a story for money alone.

It was noted above by Sally White that if “there is an indication that that particular friendship, love affair or sexual preference lays that person open to undue influence in the performance of [his or her] public duty, then it is legitimate to report it” (in Fonseca, 1992) and in this instance presumably this aspect of a politician’s private life may indeed be used against them. However “The qualities required for political office are not equated in the minds of the electorate with personal virtues or lifestyle choices: in particular, sexual infidelity in a politician’s private life is not seen as synonymous with untrustworthiness in the public domain” (Kuhn, 2004).

This tolerance, if not acceptance, of sexual indiscretion seems to account for much of the lack of public interest in politicians’ private lives. Though even if this does explain the reasons for not publishing something then we are still no closer to the reasons why such a culture exists in the first instance. One possible reason could be down to religion. France, although heavily secular, is a Catholic country and Stanyer writes of a “difference in attitudes towards the transgression of sexual norms in Protestant and Catholic countries.” Kuhn also mentions religion as a factor, thanks to France’s “norms of the national political culture, with its particular mix of Roman Catholic and secular republican values” (Kuhn, 2011: 121). There may be higher levels of disapproval of infidelity in Protestant political cultures, while Catholic cultures “have a more relaxed attitude towards extra-marital affairs” (Stanyer, 2013:75). This argument would make sense if not for the findings that say “on key moral issues, Catholic societies are more conservative” so this argument doesn’t really hold up. (Norris and Ingleheart, 2004; cited in Stanyer, 2013).

There is a definite difference in attitude towards sex in France and other Catholic southern European countries such as Italy and Spain though it would be a leap to blame this entirely on religion. Stanyer points out that “Such an emphasis on the impact of religious cultures underplays secularization” which is a massive part of French political life. In any case, “norms are not fixed, and attitudes towards sexuality have changed across western democracies in both Protestant and Catholic cultures since the 1960s” (Stanyer, 2013). “It could be that in some countries adultery is not seen as transgressing any norms, or politicians in some countries are more likely to commit adultery.” Though Thompson (2000) found that there wasn’t any particular difference across countries and are no more or less likely to have commit affairs or lead double lives than in other western democracies. (Stanyer, 2013) However much norms may change, the clichés of the seductive, romantic latin lover will remain for some time yet. These images will remain in the foreign press even if they do not accurately portray modern France.

An American’s view on sex and France: (Simon, 2012)

“Sex, done right, is some powerful shit. And when Americans begin to accept the human condition for what it is rather than an opportunity to jeer at the other fellow for getting caught, then we will be, if nothing else, a little bit more grown up. I remember when Francois Mitterrand’s wife and mistress walked beside each other in the French premier’s funeral procession and few in that country thought it remarkable. The French have got their problems, but in some respects, they make our country, our political commentary, seem as mature and insightful as a fourteen-year-old unsticking the pages of his dad’s just-discovered skin mags. It’s a peculiar American hypocrisy that only the worst kind of journalistic hack would readily and willingly embrace as a meaningful metric.”

This viewpoint is interesting as it is actually lauding France for its attitudes compared to America. The openness that was criticised in the wake of DSK is in some ways preferable to the way the US handles scandals like that of Gen. David Petraeus (who is the subject of Simon’s article).

The role of the media could become greater in the future in relation normalizing the publication of stories about politician’s private lives. “The French public have been exposed to more information about the private lives of some of their leading politicians and this has stimulated an appetite for such information among at least some of the electorate.” (Kuhn, 2011:124) Ingleheart (2000) suggests that there is greater deference from the public towards those in power than in Anglo-Saxon democracies. This may have changed in recent years with the rise of the mass-commercial press as they have become more autonomous as they aren’t beholden to the state so much any more and can print less deferential stories themselves.


Helen Trouille poses the same question that has been covered in this chapter so far. “We may ask ourselves if French journalists are perhaps more gentlemanly, less cut-throat than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. Or are the clichés which describe latins as inveterate romantics and lovers true after all? Or are these irrational judgements supported by powerful French legislation protecting the individual’s right to privacy?” (2000:199). Social norms and elite collusion count for nothing if there are no legal repercussions to publication looming over newspaper editors. This is why the laws governing the right to a private life are possibly the main explanation for this French exceptionalism and why the media has been so reluctant in publishing the kind of stories discussed in Chapter Two. Even though some press intrusion could be deemed to be in the public interest, publishers will be reluctant to run the stories for fear of being challenged in court. Each of the other reasons could easily be circumvented or plainly ignored if it suited the story, but the threat of legal action is much more serious.

“France provides some of the most robust privacy protection for public figures in the world” (Shackleford, 2011; cited in Stanyer, 2013). In terms of media regulation, it has far more actual legislation in place than most other countries. The United Kingdom has “an enduring…commitment to ‘hands-off’ self-regulation” (Humphreys, 1996, in Hallin and Mancini, 2004) and this is illustrated by the Press Complaints Commission. It was created in 1991 in an attempt to “avoid continental-style privacy and right-of-reply legislation” (Hallin and Mancini, 2004). The PPC’s role has rarely been questioned, at least until the phone hacking scandal in 2011 that brought about a general enquiry and calls for stricter regulation, and possibly even legislation. That enquiry, conducted by Lord Leveson, indeed made some recommendations towards further government involvement in the British press but they have not been taken seriously so far. Italy has a professional association of journalists and Germany has a Press Council whereas both Ireland and the USA don’t have any news council or press complaints commission.

Contrast this with France however, and we can see how different is is. It has no such complaints commission or council, and the French press is therefore free and open. The French press does have a code of conduct, drawn up by the National Union of Journalists in 1918, but this has no legal standing itself. In the place of press regulation, France has tougher privacy laws.

The majority of this legislation is covered by Article 9 of the Code Civil which came into force in 1804 but was modified in 1970. Stanyer (2013) suggests that it was politicians that were among the main beneficiaries of these new laws and they could use them to go to court and fine media outlets for breaches of privacy, thereby preventing certain stories reaching the public. Jean Quatremer (2012) has accused the French press of hiding behind this legislation, but are these laws actually enough to stop journalists reporting on stories of real significance?

Britain has a more ‘publish first, ask questions later’ style and many tabloids have indeed been caught out by their willingness to get the scoop, but by then the damage is done and the papers are sold. These British newspapers can often get away with burying an apology in the middle of the paper, or if it goes to a libel trial they can just pay the damages as they are unlikely to very substantial and they have deep pockets (Stanyer, 2013). Trouille explains that French magazines have actually “turned to running features on foreign stars, as opposed to their own (entitled to the same justice but less likely to know it)” (2000:201).

With politicians, it is often found that if a scandalous story is run about them it is usually to do with “some fraudulent or otherwise corrupt affair, as opposed to a sex scandal” (Trouille, 2000:199). Whilst allegations of corruption and fraud are part of the public sphere, and illegal, extra-marital affairs are neither public nor illegal so there is little reason to risk reporting on them, no matter how much interest there will be from the gossip columns. “For the French, public life and private life are quite separate; being slightly less than truthful about events occurring in one’s private life is considered completely irrelevant to one’s role in public office. The private and public do not mix.” (Trouille, 2000:199).

However, there is the problem of what actually constitutes as ‘vie privée’ and, as Trouille points out, it is the judges that “must form their own definition from judgements previously made” (2000:201). The courts have variously decided that a person’s vie privée can include their love life, politics and health, among other things. Trouille cites Morange (1995) who gives this definition: the “secret domain where every individual has a right to be left in peace.” To actually look at what the French Civil Code says about the right to privacy:

“Everyone has the right to respect for his private life.
Without prejudice to compensation for injury suffered, the court may prescribe any measures, such as sequestration, seizure and others, appropriate to prevent or put an end to an invasion of personal privacy; in case of emergency those measures may be provided for by interim order.”

Art. 9, (Act no 70–643 of 17 July 1970)

It talks of the “core privacy interests” of “love life; information concerning the human body (emotional and health status); financial status; religion; home and family life; and personal messages” (Roberts, 2002; Trouille 2000; cited in Sanyer, 2013)

The criminal offences that relate to privacy constitute articles 226–1 to 226–9 of the French Penal Code. Article 226–1 states there is to be a “penalty of one year’s imprisonment and a fine of €45,000 is incurred for any wilful violation of the intimacy of the private life of other persons” and this can include “intercepting, recording or transmitting words uttered in confidential or private circumstances, without the consent of their speaker” as well as “taking, recording or transmitting the picture of a person who is within a private place, without the consent of the person concerned.” These offences therefore limit what the press can do.

Another interesting facet to the French idea of privacy is that of the lieu privé. There is “privacy protection for their home life and from unwarranted intrusion in public spaces if secluded” (Klein, 2000; Shackelford, 2011; cited in Stanyer, 2013). This ‘if secluded’ aspect is of particular interest. Trouille (2000:205) refers to the ‘long revered…sanctity of the home (l’inviolabilité du domicile)’ and how this doesn’t actually have to concern a literal house as a home. “Jurisprudence…gives a broad definition to the term domicile. It is not simply an individual’s home address, but any place where he has the right to describe himself as being at home, whether he actually resides there or not.” Interestingly, hotel rooms can count as domiciles, and although the DSK case took place in New York, it could explain why there were less ethical qualms about publishing the details in France (and it makes you wonder how many hotel-based scandals have occurred on French soil, only to go unreported).

“In France…non-consensual media exposure of the personal lives of politicians is not just potentially illegal but it is seen as ethically inappropriate amongst a large section of media professionals, unless justified in very specific terms (Stanyer, 2013). One of the key defenses (Morrison and Svennig, 2007; cited in Stanyer, 2013) given after most invasions of privacy is that of public interest, as the exposure of marital infidelity can be seen as justified if it can be considered in the public interest.” (Stanyer, 2013). However, as has already been said, “the onus is on the media to prove that the intrusion is in the public interest” (Esser & Hartung, 2004; Holtz-Bacha, 2004; cited in Stanyer, 2013).


Of the four potential reasons that were given for France’s reticence over invading politicians’ privacy it is the legislation that has deemed to be the best explanation. The norms of both political, journalistic and social cultures have been shifting over the last last decades yet the law has remained resolute in its objection to publishing sensitive materials. As an explanation on why there are certain norms that prohibit the reporting of politicians’ private lives then yes, the social norms are certainly a huge factor. However, they may have been the reason for such a tradition building up in the first instance, but it is the law that keeps it in place now that that the norms are changing. That the very politicians the law is protecting who are the ones who could change it is a sign that they will not be changing anytime soon.

The boundary between public and private will continue to be blurred, and there is a lot to be said for the impact of the new technology and use of social media sites which were only very briefly mentioned here. There is no inclination that technological advances will slow or that there will be a rollback in the norms of privacy that have already been transgressed by big companies such as Facebook and Google, not when there is so much money to be made. It would be interesting to see how these personal privacy norms affect how people treat their elected officials. “It is now apparent that such a well-delineated boundary no longer exists in either the realm of political communication or in the world of journalism” (Kuhn, 2011: 121). Both sides have gained too much from increased personalization for it to stop now.

So what should the media’s role be in relation to sex scandals? This is another question entirely, and one that wasn’t able to be adequately answered here. It has been suggested that the media’s attempts to determine a candidate’s suitability for office can actually result in poorer quality candidates, in which Daniel Sutter calls the ‘media scrutiny paradox’ (2004).

There is still much to said about the implications of scandals that do not involve sex and how much impact they have on both democracy and on actual elections. Doherty et al (2011) found that “a moral scandal featuring an abuse of power affects voters intent as much as a moral scandal that does not.”

“While it is certainly not the case that France now has a political communication culture exactly similar to that of the USA or UK, it is true that it is now more difficult than previously to understand the French experiences without taking into account the transfer of practices across national boundaries.” (Kuhm. 2011: 142). Perhaps, as Kuhn says, it is more useful to talk of a “French variant of a transnational template.”

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s peculiar case certainly opened the floodgates in terms of the amount of exposure he got, but it is still too early to say if Quatremer’s ‘omertà’ has truly disappeared. What is clear is that Strauss-Kahn’s troubles are far from over and they have been a fascinating example of how far politicians can fall from grace. It will take another scandal of that magnitude to actually see if the French press will continue along the same route of even further invasions of privacy, but for now the legislation in force should keep them at bay.


Aeschimann, E. (2012) DSK, victime du «féminisme punitif» ? Le Nouvel Observateur, 05 January 2012.

Bertrand, C.-J. & Bordat, F. (1989) Les Médias Américains en France: Influence et pénétration. Paris: Belin.

Curran, J. (2005). ‘What Democracy Requires of the Media’ in Overholser, G. and K. Hall Jamieson (eds.) The Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dakhlia, J. (2010) Une chute du ‘mur francais de la vie privée’? La peopolisation politique des années 2000. The Web Journal of French Media Studies, 8.

Deloire, C. & Dubois, C. (2006). Sexus Politicus. Paris: Albin Michel.

Deloire, C. (2011) L’étrange omerta des médias sur le cas DSK. Le Monde (16th May 2011)

Doherty, D et al. (2011.) Are Financial or Moral Scandals Worse? It Depends. PS: Political Science & Politics 44: 749–757

Fonseca, M. (1992) When is the personal political?

Gibbs, N. (2011) Men Behaving Badly: What Is It About Power That Makes Men Crazy? TIME Magazine, Vol. 177, No. 22. May 30, 2011. pp. 19–24.

Hallin, D.C. & Mancini, P. (2004) Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kuhn, R. (2004) ‘Vive La Différence’? The Mediation of Politicians’ Public Images and Private Lives in France. Parliamentary Affairs (2004) 57(1): 24–40

Kuhn, R. (2011) The Media in Contemporary France. Maidenhead, Open University Press.

Kuper, S. (2012) The French media: in bed with power. Financial Times (16th March 2012)

Lichfield, J. (2011) Strauss-Kahn affair prompts backlash against French sexism. The Independent (3rd June 2011)

Lull, J. & Hinerman, S. eds. (1997) Media Scandals. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Maier, J. (2010) The impact of political scandals on political support: An experimental test of two theories. International Political Science Review 2011 32: 283

Quatremer, J. (2012). Sexe, mensonges et médias. Paris: Plon.

Rayski, B. (2011) De la virilité de nos présidents et présidentiables…Atlantico, (18th may 2011)

Simon, D. (2012) Media’s sex obsession is dangerous, destructive. (15th November 2012)

Stanyer, J. (2012) Intimate Politics: Publicity, Privacy and the Personal Lives of Politicians in Media Saturated Democracies. Cambridge: Polity

Stromback, J. (2005). In Search of a Standard: four models of democracy and their normative implications for journalism. Journalism Studies 6 (3):331–345.

Sutter, D. (2006) Media Scrutiny and the Quality of Public Officials. Public Choice , Vol. 129, No. 1/2 (Oct., 2006), pp. 25–40 New York: Springer.

Trouille, H. (2000) Private Life and Public Image: Privacy Legislation in France

West, M.D. (2006) Secrets, Sex and Spectacle: The Rules of Scandal in Japan and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wikileaks Cable