(c) Washington Post
January is drawing to a close and the dust finally seems to be settling on the month’s number-one salacious news story, i.e. that French President Francois Hollande has been cheating on his partner of a half-dozen years, Valerie Trierweiler. For the last two years, it’s transpired, he’s enjoyed furtive ‘soirees’ in the company of actress Julie Gayet. A few days ago Hollande issued a statement saying it was now all over between him and Ms Trierweiler. Presumably, he’ll now be devoting his ‘amour’ to Julie Gayet alone, and doing so in a more open manner than he’d done previously, when he would sneak off from the Elysée Palace and visit her on a motorbike, his visage concealed under a motorcyclist’s helmet. Cue the inevitable tittering in the British media about ‘Francois’ and his ‘helmet’.
So the media, at last, seems to be moving on to other tittle-tattle. That’s the British media I’m talking about, not the French one. Indeed, I suspect the Anglo-Saxon press has had its knickers in much more of a twist about Hollande’s infidelity than its Gallic counterpart.
Actually, it’s been embarrassing to see British newspapers wallow in the supposed scandal that’s befallen the French presidency. They’ve wallowed metaphorically, of course, although I’m sure there are plenty of British journalists who’d happily wallow in a wheelie-bin of real garbage in the hope of locating used condoms, stained underwear or some other evidence of celebrity misbehaviour. Their prurience is in contrast to the ‘sang-froid’ that many members of the French public have displayed regarding the shenanigans in their president’s personal life. Indeed, over the years, I’ve met a number of French people who’ve told me, in a tone of haughty indifference, that they don’t care what improprieties their politicians get up to in their spare time, sexually, financially or otherwise. All that matters to them is that those politicians do a decent job of running the country.
There’s much to be said for this ‘laissez faire’ attitude. During World War II, Winston Churchill had a fondness for alcohol that some would consider a major character failing; but thanks to the account that Churchill gave of himself as Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, it would seem churlish to criticise him for being a pisshead. And Bill Clinton may have done the dirty with at least one of his White House interns but, unlike his clean-living and God-fearing successor, he managed to avoid starting an illegal war that cost trillions of dollars and resulted in the deaths of (according to most estimates) between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians.
I generally don’t give a damn what naughtiness politicians indulge in during their private lives, then, but I think it’s fair to expose and pour scorn on them if they’ve devoted their time in office to lecturing us on how we should behave. For example, I think it was reasonable for the press to declare open season on Iris ‘Mrs’ Robinson, who was a Northern Ireland Assembly member, wife of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and someone who was never shy about denouncing homosexuality as being ungodly, when she got herself embroiled a few years ago in an extra-marital affair with a 19-year-old. And when it emerged that former British Prime Minister John Major, who during his premiership had launched a campaign called Back to Basics to encourage greater public morality, had once enjoyed a secret affair with the silky seductive siren that was Edwina Currie, I reckon he deserved all the ridicule he got.
Incidentally, apart from inherent prurience, I suspect another reason why the British media has made so much about the Hollande fiasco is due to a deep-seated insecurity experienced by the British whenever they contemplate things French. Or maybe more accurately, an insecurity felt by the English, as I don’t think the same Franco-obsession exists among the Northern Irish, Welsh or Scots. (Indeed, a French visitor north of the border will, sooner or later, be bored rigid by some local havering on about the Auld Alliance, that glorious period in French history when they were lucky enough to have Scotland as a military partner.)
In some sections of English opinion, there seems to be irritation at the fact that France, no matter how serious its economic problems, and no matter how much embarrassment is caused by its philandering president, still does certain things better than dear old Blighty. France has better cuisine (obviously); a better sense of style, which translates into better-dressed citizens; a more highly-rated health service; a functioning film industry; and cities and countryside that attract more tourists. It also has a military that is still capable of staging an intervention in another country (e.g. Mali). Over the next few days we’ll find out if the British military is capable of staging an intervention in Somerset.
And all this is despite the fact that France is, by the standards of our beloved Daily Mail, a ‘socialistic’ country – horror of horrors! Of course, many of the right-wing columnists, commentators and polemicists in the British media, who constantly poo-poo the French way of doing things as not being ‘capitalist’ enough, pack their bags every summer and head for the rural south of France. If a properly Anglo-Saxon capitalist outfit like Sainsbury or Tesco opened a branch in one those picturesque French villages where they hole up for the summer, and put out of business the pretty little boulangeries, charcuteries, fromageries, poissonneries and magasins de fruits et légumes from which they buy their local produce, I’m sure there’d be no end to their moaning and complaining.