Say au revoir to the cinq-à-sept, messieurs

Since the arrest of DSK, France has started to question the once private lives of its most powerful men

Independent on Sunday, 5 June 2011

If you walk into any British supermarket, you will see shelves groaning under the weight of magazines that promise to spill the secrets of stars’ private lives. Love rats, love birds… there is a virtual zoo of celebrity sexual behaviour on offer, along with tabloid revelations about politicians’ private lives. Where else would a party leader face questions on television about how many people he’s slept with and feel obliged to answer? In France, such forays into private matters have traditionally been observed with amused indifference, if not a weary sense of Gallic superiority.

Now scarcely a day goes by without a new set of allegations against leading French politicians. The country’s journalists have been left squirming, unable any longer to offer a coherent view of the boundary between public and private conduct. Last month’s arrest in New York of the Socialist politician and head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, on serious sex charges was just the beginning. Last weekend brought the resignation of a junior government minister, Georges Tron, who has been accused of sexually harassing two former municipal employees in the Paris suburb where he is mayor.

Hardly had that piece of news broken when Luc Ferry, a leading right-wing philosopher and former education minister, made incendiary allegations during a TV discussion about privacy, accusing another Socialist former minister of taking part in an orgy with young boys in Morocco. Ferry didn’t name the man, whose identity is known throughout France, but claimed to have been told about the orgy by “high authorities of the state – in particular, a prime minister”. On Friday, Ferry was summoned to a prosecutor’s office in Paris where he was asked for precise information about what the man is alleged to have done, although Ferry has said he doesn’t have proof of his claims. There has been a queasy reaction to his use of a television studio to air such damaging allegations, but it should be remembered that frank admissions of sex tourism by Nicolas Sarkozy’s culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, did not cost him his job 18 months ago.

As it happens, Mitterrand and the unnamed ex-minister accused by Ferry were among the most vocal supporters of Roman Polanski when the film director was arrested and threatened with extradition to the US in 2009. Polanski, who has dual French-Polish citizenship, fled Los Angeles to avoid a prison sentence after pleading guilty in 1977 to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl; he had been technically a fugitive from justice ever since, but his supporters in France brushed aside the unpleasant details, as though his illustrious career in cinema placed him above such squalid accusations.

With hindsight, the Polanski affair may have been a turning point. With so many politicians now facing allegations of sexual harassment or assault, it looks like the last gasp of a culture that was confused not just about the distinction between public and private life but the line between pleasure and criminality. At the time of Polanski’s arrest, Mitterrand had just been appointed culture minister and he forcefully expressed the view that the director was a victim of puritanical American attitudes towards sex. It quickly emerged that in his autobiography, published in 2005, Mitterrand had boasted about visiting Thailand and Indonesia as a sex tourist, admitting that he was fully aware of “the sordid details of this traffic”. Although he implied that he had paid for sex with under-age boys, Mitterrand’s admissions passed largely unnoticed until Marine Le Pen, daughter of the founder of the French National Front, read out the relevant passages from his book on live TV. Traditional respect for public figures’ private lives, combined with the fact that the attack on Mitterrand came from such a tainted source, worked in the minister’s favour and he kept his job. But the reaction outside France was very different, signalling that time was running out for the self-styled libertines of this world.

It’s long been a matter of national pride in France that ministers, mayors and presidents do what they like in private, even maintaining a secret second family in the case of President Mitterrand, without fear of exposure in the press. According to this view of the world, Bill Clinton would never have got into so much trouble over a mere intern if only he’d been French. But French disdain for tabloid culture was always selective: Sarkozy’s then justice minister, Rachida Dati, was the subject of intense debate in 2009 when she returned to work five days after giving birth and refused to name the baby’s father. It also overlooked the crucial point that some forms of sexual behaviour tip over into the category of abuse and are a legitimate matter of public interest.

French journalists have been so pleased with themselves, and so fearful of imitating Anglo-Saxon prurience, that the events of recent weeks have hit them with the force of an electric cattle prod. Overnight, they’ve gone from seeing themselves as relaxed about trysts, love affairs and the celebrated cinq-à-sept – those hours in the early evening when French men traditionally spend time with their mistresses – to facing accusations of colluding in sexual abuse if not actual rape. Some of the accusations have come from inside the country, from feminists who have finally spotted an opportunity to bring this enabling culture into the open. The effect has been devastating to the French psyche.

The alleged victims of abuse by some of the most powerful men in France are among the poorest, most vulnerable people in society. It cannot be stressed too strongly that the slew of allegations against politicians isn’t about consensual affairs between adults: they’ve been accused of misuse of power, coercion, having under-age sexual partners and being involved in sex tourism. Some of the allegations may not be true, but there have been sufficient to suggest a pattern, and DSK’s arrest seems to have acted as a catalyst. One French women’s organisation has recorded a sixfold increase in complaints about sexual harassment in the past fortnight.

Privacy is important. In this country, celebrity culture has turned private life into a commodity which is currently being fought over on social-networking sites, in Parliament and the courts. The French are right to believe that there’s something infantile about wanting to know which famous footballer is sleeping with an actress, but wrong to argue that every aspect of private life is off-limits. A country that believes in equality and human rights stands accused of turning a blind eye to exploitation, and of colluding in a sexist culture where women ministers no longer wear skirts in Parliament to avoid “salacious” comments from male colleagues.

Instead of railing against American prosecutors or Anglo-Saxon prurience, the French political and cultural elite needs to ask itself an uncomfortable question. Why have so many alleged abusers been able to thrive for so long in its ranks?

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