NO SEX PLEASE, WE’RE FRENCH: POWER & PRIVACY IN THE FIFTH REPUBLIC
If there is any subject that, on the surface, reveals the well-known differences between French and Anglo-Saxon cultures, it’s the most obvious one — attitudes towards sex.
Nicolas Sarkozy knew this, Dominique Strauss-Kahn did not. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a conversation between Sarkozy and Strauss-Kahn just before the latter moved to Washington DC to take up his new post as head of International Monetary Fund. Knowing Strauss-Kahn’s reputation as a compulsive womaniser, Sarkozy warned his political rival to keep his notorious zipper problem under control in puritanical America where public figures who get caught philandering are torn to pieces by the media.
Strauss-Kahn obviously wasn’t listening. Perhaps he had grown arrogant in high-office, enjoying the impunity of power in France. Perhaps he’d been too long used to the tacit indulgence towards his womanising by his many close friends in the French media — the same journalists who refer to him as “DSK”. Whatever it was, hubris or complacency, it was a catastrophic mistake. The code of silence that prevents French journalists from reporting the private vices of public figures does not exist outside of France — especially in the United States.
In France, the tacit media credo might be described, ironically, as “No Sex Please, We’re French”. In a Catholic culture with a deeply entrenched suspicion towards money, French journalists will pull out all the stops to investigate financial malfeasance and defalcations. Yet when the issue is sexual indiscretion, no matter how shocking, French journalists rigorously observe a strict silence — especially regarding the private vices of politicians.
I first became aware of this media omerta shortly after moving to Paris as a graduate student nearly twenty-five years ago. At that time, François Mitterrand was regally installed in the Elysée Palace as France’s president. Through my professors, many of whom had impeccable political connections, I learned all sorts of juicy gossip about Mitterrand — the names of female journalists and women ministers in his government who’d shared his bed, the existence of a longstanding mistress and illegitimate daughter living at the state’s expense on Quai Branly, and even that Mitterrand was suffering from cancer. Needless to say, every journalist in Paris was in possession of these same facts. Yet not a word appeared in the French press.
French journalists are well aware of this criticism, of course, and have well-rehearsed retorts to challenge polite Anglo-Saxon expressions of astonishment on the subject. They usually will say, “On s’en fout” — in short, that they are simply indifferent towards sexual indiscretions. If they wish to show irritation, they add that only puritanical Anglo-Saxons are obsessed about sex. This French vs Anglo comparison is meant to be flattering towards blasé French attitudes and belittling towards puerile Anglo-Protestant values. The French assert this contrast as a sign of their cultural superiority.
The truth, as with most things in life, is much more complex. Indeed, the French assertion of cultural superiority on the subject of sex raises a puzzling paradox, less explored, about media behaviour in France. If the French are so culturally mature and nonchalant about sexual indiscretions, why don’t the French media display the same relaxed attitude by writing about them? Why the bizarre code of silence?
It’s possible to unlock the enigma at the core of this French paradox. The key is hidden in profound realities about French society on three levels: cultural values, intellectual tradition, and legal system. In truth, attitudes towards sex, as noted at the outset, constitute only superficial differences between French and Anglo-Saxon cultures. The DSK scandal, in fact, is not really about sex at all. It’s about power. On that level, the differences between French and Anglo-Saxon cultures are profound.
An assessment of these differences in the three identified areas — culural values, intellectual traditions, legal systems — provides unexpected insights that help understand media behaviour towards political power in France and the Anglo-American world.
1. First, cultural values.
Anglo-Saxon culture historically has been shaped by the Protestant ethic, which rewards virtue with honour and punishes vice with guilt. In Anglo-American culture, there is blurring, for better or worse, of public and private virtue. Those who seek high office are expected to embody private virtues, especially when they are publicly professed. Violations are severely punished with public shame, humiliation, and destitution. In most cases, guilt alone is sufficient to compel public figures to come clean, confess their sins, and resign from office. True, John F. Kennedy was protected by a code of silence, but American journalists abandoned those practices after Watergate. Today, the media in America and Britain feel little compunction in exposing the private vices of public figures, especially when the office holder is guilty of hypocrisy. The list is long of politicians in the UK and USA who have been torn to shreds by the media for illicit sexual conduct.
French culture, by contrast, has been shaped by a long history of Catholic indulgence. French culture is also characterised by a profound cynicism that has left its mark on the way the country is governed. From the Bourbon kings to the elected monarchs of the Fifth Republic, French ruling elites have felt relatively unaccountable to the population and conduct themselves in private with little regard to public scorn. French kings during the ancien régime kept official mistresses and sired bastard children in full view of the royal court. In modern times, Charles de Gaulle was a spartan figure whose personal life was devoid of drama. In the Fifth Republic, he has been the exception amongst French presidents. François Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter Mazarine installed in an official state residence paid modern-day homage to the tradition of royal prerogative. The Bourbon kings held their lavish court in Versailles; the Fifth Republic has its own “effet de cour” in the gilded salons of the Elysée Palace. Today, an aspiring Madame de Pompadour (see image below) is frequently a fetching female TV journalist working for one of the big French networks. The sacralisation of power in France accords great privilege, and impunity, to those who hold high office — especially given that the French political system lacks institutional checks-and-balances on power.
Mitterrand, a great admirer of the talents of attractive female journalists, could feel secure in the knowledge that the French media would never report his private indiscretions, nor his battle with cancer. What’s more, and perhaps most importantly, Mitterrand felt no guilt about his conduct. Guilt is virtually absent from French culture, certainly amongst its ruling elites. This explains why French politicians who do get caught for some transgression invariably deny all claims against them and refuse to resign. In Britain, the same politician’s career would be ruined in less than a week. In France, politicians guiltlessly deflect accusations and stubbornly refuse to relinquish their privileges. Not only are French politicians protected from public scrutiny by a complicit media, they feel no guilt about their questionable conduct. Understanding this absence of guilt is key to grasping the conduct of French elites. In France, elites conduct themselves according to tacit codes in a pervasive culture of entitlement.
2. Second, intellectual traditions.
Anglo-Saxons, it is frequently observed, claim a long intellectual tradition, based on empiricism, whose consequences include the famous “pragmatic” bent of the English mind. Anglo-Saxons have an intellectual bias in favour of facts. This has been tremendously useful in areas ranging from technological innovation to forensic police investigations. It has also shaped Anglo-American journalism, which from its earliest days was strongly biased in favour of reporting facts and conducting investigations to uncover the truth. Whether “objective truth” exists or not is a philosophical discussion. The important point here is that Anglo-American journalism is based on empirical methods to collect facts in pursuit of the truth. This explains why Anglo-American journalists claim a “Fourth Estate” function and value investigative journalism as a check on power.
The French intellectual tradition, by contract, is based largely on abstract knowledge and mathematics — often described, too simplistically, as “Cartesian”. Until very recently, France recruited its banking and government elites from schools like Polytechnique that train young minds in mathematics. French elites indeed are impressive for their intellectual rigour. The deficiency of this abstract intellectual tradition, however, is an ambiguous relationship with factual truth. Impressive abstract thinkers, French elites have little understanding of pragmatic approaches, and frequently display an intellectual contempt for facts. Nowhere is this more evident than in French journalism. Look at the front page of any French newspaper and start reading a news story: immediately you will notice that the facts are either absent or buried near the bottom. French journalists are not, culturally speaking, interested in facts. They have a intellectual bias in favour of ideas and arguments.
The consequences of this professional bias are not unimportant. France’s top journalists are not particularly interested in the truth. Worse, many are more than willing, and indeed complicit, in concealing the truth from the French population. When French journalists keep quiet about the personal vices of France’s head-of-state, it’s not because they reject a “puritanical” obsession with petty prurience, it’s because they are the products of an intellectual culture that has an ambiguous relationship with the truth. Moreover, they share this intellectual culture with the French political elites who benefit from the code of silence. In the 1980s when the French media knowingly suppressed news about Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter Mazarine (see photo below) and his prostate cancer, they were tacitly participating in an organised lie. For those who wonder why the French media never reported DSK’s legendary womanising, the answer is that French journalists have long been faithful keepers of such secrets.
3. Third, legal systems.
The American and British legal systems are not identical in this regard, and there are some important nuances. But generally speaking, the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition is based on the principle of “freedom of expression”. There are laws against defamation and libel, of course, but the test is generally “truth”. In other words, a claimant (person injured) must prove that a libel is untrue; or, inversely, the defendant (say, a newspaper) must prove that the accusations are true. In both Britain and the United States, the courts generally put freedom of expression before privacy rights — especially regarding public figures. It is true that celebrities in the UK have been resorting to “super injunctions” to impose court gagging orders on press revelations about their personal vices (usually adultery). Leaving this aside, public figures in the Anglo-American world are usually fair game for media scrutiny. They chose to seek fame or high office, and therefore must live with its consequences.
In France, the legal system is precisely the opposite: French law puts personal privacy before freedom of expression. What’s more, the law in France interdicts any intrusion into a person’s private life. The French law makes no distinction between public figures and ordinary citizens. This gives the appearance of equality before the law, but in effect the statute protects the private lives of public figures from media scrutiny. In France, there a legal barrier between private and public lives — though when Mitterrand installed his parallel family in a state residence at taxpayers expense, the French media still observed obedient silence. Under French law, it doesn’t matter whether something is “true”, the media cannot intrude into someone’s private life, period. This reinforces the notion, noted above, about the ambiguous relationship with the truth in French culture.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn occasionally faced gently probing questions about his ardent interest in the seductive arts, and each time he cited his “private life” as the reason for not answering the question. Some French politicians have successfully sued, and obtained financial damages, for intrusions as trivial as photographs published in glossy magazines showing them in the banal course of their daily lives (though at the same time, as seen on the Paris Match cover below, politicians have posed with their wives on magazine covers for purely political reasons).
Whatever the justification for France’s strict privacy law, it explains why French journalists respect the code of silence about the private lives of public figures in France. French journalists, for cultural and intellectual reasons, may not be especially interested in the truth — but the law is there to remind them to stay away from it.
The real issue, of course, is who benefits from this complex dynamic of cultural, intellectual, and legal codes. The answer to that question is easy to discover: the beneficiaries are French elites. As noted above, the real issue behind the DSK scandal is not sex, but power.
For decades, French politicians felt secure in the knowledge that, whatever personal vices or transgressions they committed in their “private” lives, they ran no risk of any embarrassing revelations in the media. As noted above, financial corruption is a different story, due to the deep animosity in France’s Catholic culture towards money. Sex, on the other hand, has been off limits. This code of silence has suited French journalists as much as it has served the interests of French politicians. Many influential French journalists are close personal friends of the politicians whom they are supposed to be holding publicly to account. The code of silence furnishes a professional pretext that serves to maintain friendly, and sometimes intimate, relationships between press and power in the official court of the Fifth Republic. No such code of silence exists in the Anglo-American media today. For all its defects, the media in the Anglo-American world reflect a profound cultural suspicion of state power. This explains why Anglo-American journalists espouse the professional virtues of transparency and accountability. In France, with its long tradition of reverence towards power, the media are an institutionalised expression of this cultural reflex. This explains why French journalists, despite a few remarkable exceptions, work within a professional culture of complicity and servility towards political power.
If there is any good news that has come out of the DSK scandal, it’s that suddenly there is real debate about the media code of silence in France. DSK’s indictment on attempted rape charges in the United States has shocked the French media into realising that perhaps they were too indulgent for too long towards powerful figures. The old dismissive argument about Anglo-Saxon “puritanism” now sounds disingenuous and self-serving. The French media are embarrassed. And so they should be. Worse, there is now a real risk that ordinary French citizens are realising that the country’s political and media elites have long been in bed together (sometimes literally) and that the maintenance of these incestuous relationships has been more important than informing French citizens about those in high office who govern the country. The DSK scandal, beyond his political downfall, could provoke a serious crisis of legitimacy for French elites.
There is good reason to believe, however, that changes in French society are rapidly making these debates outdated. There are two reasons for this.
First, the advent of Nicolas Sarkozy as French president has changed the style of politics in France. Sarkozy, it is often observed, is “American” in his personal and political style — in fact, it’s one of the reasons the French media resent him. Sarkozy’s personal style has transformed the way the French public, and journalists, look at their leaders. Sarkozy, while not completely impervious to intrusions into his personal life, has openly displayed his many personal crises, including his divorce from his previous wife and marriage to fashion model Carla Bruni. With Sarkozy in the Elysée Palace, the media French media increasingly feel that the private lives of politicians are fair game. After the downfall of DSK, the cloak of secrecy may be lifted forever.
Second, the explosion of the Web has seen the launch in France of many American-style “citizen journalism” sites driven by fact-based journalism and investigation. Sites like Mediapart, Rue89, and Agora Vox have shown a willingness to expose facts and debate issues with an openness that put the mainstream media to shame. No wonder French politicians have publicly expressed contempt for these sites, notably Mediapart. If the American political style of Nicolas Sarkozy isn’t enough to change the old journalistic rules in France, the democratising power of the Web most assuredly will.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whatever the outcome of his legal troubles in the United States, may well go down in the annals of French media as the last politician who benefited from the code of silence that protected France’s ruling elites from the discipline of public scrutiny.
Matthew Fraser’s Blog