L’affaire DSK: French right to private lives on trial

That one French statesman has been charged with sexual assault is no reason to attack the civilised distinction between public and private affairs.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

It is unclear what did or will happen in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now ex-head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and prospective Socialist Party candidate for the presidency of France, who has been arrested and detained in New York for the alleged attempted rape of a hotel employee. But it is already certain that l’affaire DSK is being used by some to put on trial France’s culture of allowing public figures to have private lives, and to demand that French politics be turned into the sort of scandal-obsessed reality TV show that we already ‘enjoy’ in the UK and the USA.

Until recently, France generally held to the old-fashioned idea that people’s private lives should be, well, private. This rule was enforced by France’s strict privacy laws which, rather like the English libel laws, have certainly been exploited to protect the rich and powerful from scrutiny. It also, however, reflected a mature cultural recognition that public figures should be judged on their public deeds and principles, and not necessarily by their personal affairs.

Some French statesmen were thus able to pursue complicated private lives in the knowledge that they were unlikely to be exposed in the media and, even if they were, it was unlikely to cost them the support of their public. The French even coined a name for these vigorous politicians: lapins chaud – ‘hot rabbits’, a somewhat more affectionate and admiring phrase than the British equivalent, ‘old goats’.

In the most famous case, former Socialist president Francois Mitterrand (who held office from 1981 to 1995) not only kept private the fact that he had been diagnosed with cancer in the year he was first elected, but also that he had previously fathered a daughter by his mistress – this was kept ‘secret’ within the political-media elite until she was an adult and Mitterrand was close to retirement and death. (In an ironic twist, President Mitterrand was posthumously found guilty of violating the privacy of others by mounting a phone-tapping operation, partly designed to protect his secrets.)

But now the tradition of allowing public figures to have private lives clashes spectacularly with the voyeuristic reveal-all culture of celebrity gossip and personal ‘confession’ that passes for public debate across much of the Western world. It seems incomprehensible to many media and political observers today that anybody should have a private life. For these influential scandal-mongers, if something is kept hidden from the public eye – ie, private – then there must surely be a cover-up, a ‘dark secret’ to be revealed.

It is in this spirit that many in the UK, USA and elsewhere have seized upon the scandal surrounding Strauss-Kahn as evidence that French politics is a pit of sleaze and corruption protected by the national respect for privacy. Time, and the US legal system, may or may not tell whether DSK is the unsavoury character that he has been painted as in the international media in recent days. It should be evident already, however, that it is an assault on reason to take one statesman’s alleged sex crime as ‘proof’ that France’s entire national culture must be turned on its head and brought into line with the prurient worst of the West.

Yet that’s what is effectively being demanded by many in the British and international media, who would like to use l’affaire DSK as a pointed stick to poke the French into conforming. ‘Spotlight on France’s “macho” culture’ announces the BBC, as if sexual privacy and sexism must be more or less the same thing. One British newspaper headline sums up the consensus: ‘In the dock: IMF chief and France’s culture of secrecy’. Even the Arab and Russian news agencies have joined in the chorus, with Al-Jazeera declaring ‘French sex scandal to break public taboo’, while RIA Novosti reports that France now has ‘a new point of departure’, so that its political history will henceforth be divided into two eras, ‘before and after the scandal’.

What France as a society is essentially accused of by British pundits is not rape, but of failing to order its public affairs according to the kind of codes laid down in a London council’s diversity committee meetings. Its politicians stand accused of not behaving like automaton products of some PC media finishing school. The prosecution counsels demand that private lives be made public property, in the process turning French politics into another reality TV circus.

The pressure in this direction is not only coming from outside France. Important sections of the French elite are losing faith in their own traditions. While attacking the American legal system over its treatment of DSK, the French media has also turned inwards to question itself. The left newspaper Liberation has written of France undergoing its first ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sex scandal, forcing it into a ‘brutal’ public debate of matters that were previously ‘confined to rumours and gossip among a select circle of insiders’. Even Le Monde, paper of the liberal establishment, has published an attack on ‘the strange media omerta’ over politicians’ sex lives.

Indeed the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, himself has already done much to undermine the divide between French public and private life. Sarkozy turned his courtship and marriage to the singer and former model Carla Bruni into a celebrity circus on the Posh’n’Becks model. Partly as a result of his publicity-seeking antics, the French courts are now said to be less willing to enforce strict privacy rulings on behalf of public figures. Sarkozy may have warned Strauss-Kahn, on his departure to take up the IMF post, to be aware that the Americans take matters of sexual behaviour far more seriously than the French. But the president has also appeared willing to use ‘Anglo-Saxon’ muck-slinging tactics at home; DSK, the former Socialist presidential contender, is said to have warned his potential rival Sarkozy, as the two brushed shoulders at a urinal, to stop exploiting rumours about his personal life in the coming electoral contest.

It was notable that the French journalist who has accused Strauss-Kahn of behaving like a ‘rutting chimpanzee’ towards her did so during a web broadcast of a staged dinner party where various French celebrities discuss their lives and opinions between mouthfuls – the sort of public-confessional-posing-as-private-chat that we have become only too familiar with in the British and American media.

At a time when the UK courts and media are tying themselves in knots over celebrity scandals and super-injunctions, they are in no position to start lecturing the French over where the line between private and public ought (not) to be today. The French privacy laws are indeed a crime against freedom of expression, and they have no more place in a democracy than does the British state’s armoury of censorship rules, libel laws and judge-imposed privacy rulings or super-injunctions.

But that should not mean we demand that the French degrade their public life further and fill it in with sexual scandal and personalised gossip as has been done in the UK and much of the West. Especially as Sarkozy and Co appear perfectly capable of emulating that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model these days without any help from us.

By all means let us have a proper debate about the respective roles of the private and public arenas in a civilised society – an issue which has nothing to do with what did or did not happen in that New York hotel room. And let us begin with the assumption that everybody quite rightly has ‘something to hide’. It is called our private life.

In the meantime, if liberal-minded journalists want to investigate a public scandal around DSK, how about asking how the European left became so politically debased that the chief of the IMF, bailer-out of world capitalism, could be looked up to as one of Europe’s leading Socialists?

Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.

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Topics Politics


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