The Paris press corps used to be able to keep a secret, especially if it was about the tumultuous, even torrid, private lives of France's political elite. But no more. A revolution has swept away press propriety, if France's recent election season is any evidence. Now, the marital and sexual exploits of the nation's pols are fair game for the country's press. And the news often comes straight from the sources themselves.
The boldest example of that revolution came this week, with the announcement by former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royal that her nearly 30-year relationship with party leader François Hollande, the father of her four children, had gone bust. Though the unmarried couple had long been known to be drifting apart, Royal's disclosure that she'd "asked François Hollande to leave the house and live his romantic life apart" carried the extra, titillating hint of infidelity when she lamented that details of Hollande's affairs would "from now on be spread within newspapers and books." The soap opera aficionados recalled that during her campaign, Royal had related how, during a vacation the year before, she had asked Hollande to marry her. If that wasn't enough to land Hollande the villain's label, Royal then blamed her loss in the presidential race on the lack of support by Hollande and his Socialist Party heavyweights. Royal then said she wanted Hollande's job as party boss.
Thus, with Hollande's role in their broken relationship as metaphor for his party leadership, Royal positioned herself as the kind of decisive and unflinching leader capable of reforming a badly dysfunctional Socialist Party. Nevertheless, Royal has also given some observers cause to wonder just how faithful a person she is as well. During a radio interview Thursday, Royal strangely placed much of the blame for her presidential failure on policies other Socialist leaders insisted she champion, despite her conviction that many of those planks in the platform "weren't credible [and] I didn't believe in [them]." Politics, she should be aware, can also be a metaphor for private life.
The very public demise of the Royal-Hollande alliance should stand as warning to French politicians who use their private life to market themselves in the media. An earlier example of how such moves can boomerang came over the past two years, when Nicolas Sarkozy, now the President of France, relentlessly presented wife Cecilia as an irreplaceable member of his political team. He repeatedly compared her to Hillary Clinton. And then, in 2005, Cecilia left him for another man. She returned to Sarkozy and, reluctantly, to his political campaign in time to help him win the presidency in May. But throughout the campaign, there was constant media speculation that she was on the verge of bolting again.
Other famous couples have seen their private lives go tabloid. The current No. 2 member in France's government, Jean-Louis Borloo, has seen his wife, one of France's top TV news anchors, take a leave of absence from work during the campaign season to avoid the appearance of any conflict of interest. Meanwhile, current Interior Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie no longer makes much public mention of her relationship with leading conservative politician Patrick Ollier, since both were cited among people allegedly caught up in a long and complex spy scandal. At the very center of the current media storm, Hollande is now thinking it wiser to draw the curtain between private and public life. "I always have been careful to separate politics, which must have principles, rules and foundations, from private life, which must be protected." Ah, but it takes two to tango. And Ségolène and the press are now dancing to another tune.