John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.
PARIS — France feels violated. Or rather, part of France feels violated: political France, Parisian France, mainstream media France.
For the first time in the country’s modern history, a politician has resigned because his sex life — his private, consensual sex life — has been publicly exposed. Literally exposed, in this case.
Benjamin Griveaux, French President Emmanuel Macron’s candidate to become mayor of Paris next month, stepped down last Friday. A video of him masturbating, which he sent to a 27-year-old woman two years ago, had been posted online.
Politicians and commentators of all stripes, from hard left to far right, were outraged — not by Griveaux’s behavior but by the posting of the video and the fact that it had caused him to resign.
“We are not electing a saint but the mayor of Paris” — Sébastien Chenu of the far-right National Rally party
They complained that France’s relaxed and sane attitude to the sex lives of politicians had been overwhelmed by the crude “gotcha” values of social media and the internet.
French public life was being “Americanized,” they said. A vital barrier between politics and sex, the public and the private, had fallen. At stake was nothing less than the future of French democracy.
Sébastien Chenu of the far-right National Rally party said, “We are not electing a saint but the mayor of Paris.”
Richard Ferrand, the president of the National Assembly, a friend of Griveaux and a prominent Macronite, weighed in from another band of the political spectrum: “Everyone has their right to a ‘secret garden’ — a privacy of thought and action,” he said. “Don’t let’s muddle transparency and voyeurism, a step towards a kind of sexual inquisition.”
After 23 years in France, I confess that I find myself confused. I thought that I understood France pretty well. I realize that I don’t.
The reaction to the Griveaux affair — or “Masturgate” — appears to me to be at once predictable, understandable and absurd.
The invasion of private lives of private citizens is wrong and often cruel. You only need to look at the British tabloid media to see how wrong and cruel it can be.
Is it equally wrong to discuss — within reason — the private lives and hypocrisies of public figures?
Griveaux, married with three small children, boasted in his campaign about his happy family life and conservative values. Former President Jacques Chirac and many other conservative French politicians have been guilty of similar double standards in the past.
Perhaps more to the point, this was not simply an extramarital affair. Griveaux sent a young woman, a law student at the time, a video of himself masturbating. He was then, in May 2018, a Cabinet minister and chief spokesman for the government.
Hervé Gattagno, editor of Le Journal du Dimanche, wrote that Griveaux was “irresponsible but not guilty.”
That seems to me to reveal something important about Griveaux’s character and maturity and fitness for office. According to most French commentators, that is an obdurately Anglo-Saxon and prudish attitude.
The nearest to criticism of Griveaux that you can find in the French media has come from Hervé Gattagno, editor of Le Journal du Dimanche. He wrote, wittily, that Griveaux was “irresponsible but not guilty.”
The case is further complicated by the extraordinary saga of how the video came to be posted online. The woman to whom Griveaux sent the images in May 2008, Alexandra de Taddeo, is now a lawyer. She’s also a hard-left political activist, as is her new lover, an exiled Russian, anarchist and performance artist, Piotr Pavlenski, who once nailed his scrotum to Red Square.
It was Pavlenski, now close to the Yellow Jackets movement, who put the video online last week after failing to interest the French investigative website Mediapart. Like the satirical weeky, Le Canard Enchainé, Mediapart refuses to touch revelations of a private, sexual nature.
Griveaux sent the images to De Taddeo two years ago using an app that was supposed to obliterate them after a few minutes. Instead, they were somehow recorded — or recovered. Was this a long-planned political hit job?
That remains unclear. It seems to me unlikely. Why hold on to the images for so long?
Both De Taddeo and Pavlenksi were arrested last Saturday and face possible charges of “invasion of private life” and “posting unauthorized sexual images.”
Long-planned or not, the posting of the images was clearly part of a war on Macron and his allies that is being waged ceaselessly on the internet by both the far left and far right. Other ammunition used in that war includes misrepresentations and outright lies about Macron’s policies — and baseless rumors about the president’s own private life.
To that extent, the fears of French mainstream media are justified. De Taddeo and Pavlenski’s behavior is part of a deliberate assault on representative democracy — a systematic attempt to sully all mainstream politicians and the mainstream media.
Does that excuse Griveaux? To the obdurate Anglo-Saxon in me, it suggests that his behavior was even more stupid and unforgiveable.
In any case, the shriek of rage about the violation of the French law and taboo on personal privacy is itself hypocritical. French glossy magazines invade the privacy of foreign royalty and domestic and foreign showbiz celebs weekly — and pay up the moderate fines as part of their business model. No one much protests.
By my own observation, French people outside the Paris bubble are not so enthusiastic as insiders about the immunity of politicians’ private lives. The original Yellow Jackets movement was driven in part by lurid fantasies of taxpayer-funded orgies — symptomatic of a wider sense of being denied the whole truth.
The lesson for French politicians from Griveaux’s troubles is more subtle than it seems.
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair in 2012 should have buried once and for all the notion that wayward sexual behavior by French male politicians can be a matter of private gossip, but not public concern. DSK’s reputation as someone who pushed behavior with women to the limit was well known. No one wrote about it, with one honorable (or, to French eyes, dishonorable) exception.
That kind of immunity can no longer exist in the internet age. French law, and media self-denying ordonnances, might keep discussion of the sex lives of politicians out of mainstream publications or platforms. Extending that prohibition to the darker reaches of the net is impossible.
The lesson for French politicians from Griveaux’s troubles is more subtle than it seems. If the French politician had “merely” had an affair with a consenting 27-year-old student, the story would have been a one-day wonder, if that. It’s the video that made the difference.
French politicians do not have to behave like saints. But they should avoid acting like the most idiotic of teenagers.