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Rumors have been flying that both France President Nicholas Sarkozy and his wife, singer/model Carla Bruni, have strayed. By American standards, things are pretty far along: Bruni is said to have fallen in love and moved in with popular French singer Benjamin Biolay. Meanwhile Sarkozy has supposedly taken up with right-wing politician (and former karate champion) Chantal Jouanno.

But between strict national privacy laws and the notorious French indifference to the personal pecadillos of political figures, no one seems inclined to confirm these rumors, least of all, the French mainstream press.

The whispering, such as it is, is taking place in — where else — the blogosphere. Three French-language blogs are reporting on the supposed affairs, though the one I read did not seem to constitute confirmable information. Besides, why would a mainstream editor risk angering public figures to follow a story that does not, in the French version of politics, relate to the political? As the French themselves might say,  “Ca ne fait rien.”

Contrast this attitude with the United States, whose tabloid culture permits pusuit of almost any public figure. Ever since Presidential candidate Gary Hart challenged journalists to “catch him in the act” with  model Donna Rice, the personal lives of politicians have become fair game for former celebrity-chasing papparrazzi. The National Enquirer is being considered for a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the John Edwards affair, a turn of events which must have mainstream editors of old spinning in their graves.

The cultural difference is clear. The French, as one reporter noted, believe public figures should be judged not on their “sentimental lives” but on their work. He observed that former presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both had mistresses without suffering any political fallout. Sarkozy is different: a highly public and flamboyant figure whose apparent need for the spotlight and lack of discretion might lead voters to conclude his private life has impeded his ability to fulfill his public duty.

Then again, it depends on how public he chooses to make his supposed affair, because this is not a story that will be printed (or confirmed) without Sarkozy’s tacit approval. Not so in this country, where our journalists feel an almost sacred obligation to follow the rumor and pull the story out into the light of day. Their reasoning, which we have frankly provided for them, is that the private doings of public officials become our business when they take an oath to serve us.

Clearly, we have cultural differences with the French. A “man on the street” interview in Paris found that most people, whether disappointed or not (no one seemed particularly shocked), didn’t automatically see a worrisome connection between the private activities of the first couple and the political necessities of the job. That view is anathema to many Americans, who hold that knowing how public (or spiritual) leaders conduct their private lives will tell us how honestly and effectively they will conduct their public ones. Viva la difference, one might say.

Of equal interest is what publishers, editors, and journalists feel needs to be reported. In France, the press tends to be in a laissez faire mode when it comes to covering the personal comings and goings and doings of the ruling class, a frame of mind not usually challenged by its readership. In the United States, scandal sells, especially scandals involving elected officials.

In the end, we may all agree that politicians are scoundrels but in France, that non-newsworthy item is greeted with a shrug; here, it’s greeted with both righteous indignation and the sort of pruient interest that can earn a tabloid a top journalism prize.

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