In retrospect, it did seem there was one upside to the national embarrassment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual crimes and extravaganzas in New York and around the world (extra credit if you even remember that fallen idol). Namely, the creation of a bogeyman-scapegoat for France. Exposed and excoriated, DSK was harried into exile in his Moroccan villa, carrying the sins of epic French bad behavior on his back. France, thus cleansed of scandal and international opprobrium, could return to serious public business.
Surging in the polls as ‘Mr. Normal’, Francois Hollande wrested the Presidency from incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy, whom voters still viewed as something of an old-style highlifer himself, Sarko having snagged Mike Jagger’s ex-bird. Never mind that Hollande entered office with no experience governing and an incoherent program, nor that he fathered four kids with his previous partner. Pudgy, ill-dressed and pudding-faced, the man nicknamed ‘the penguin’ exuded clerkish unsexiness. He still does.
And Valerie Trierweiler, installed as ‘la premiere Dame’? Who gushed last summer to an interviewer that she had given up a career in journalism for ‘the man of my life’? Until now she’s hovered in the background of the picture, unsure of her role, given to political gaffes, worry-wrinkles intact. A well-matched pair, even in their abysmally low popularity ratings. If the country was going to hell in a hand basket, people thought, with the economy stuck at zero and the extreme right gaining traction, at least Francois Hollande would be up late working overtime. No below-the-belt distractions. From that, they were safe.
That was the image, the public story. Until January 10th, when paparazzi photos splashed over newsstands, testifying to Hollande’s long-standing, open-secret affair with the fetchingly gap-toothed actress Julie Gayet. Trysts via motor-scooter, yet! Photos of the helmeted, sportif Prez zooming on his bike through Paris at night. Just like any normal guy! Followed on motor-scooter 2 by the security guard who would deliver croissants to the love nest in the morning. An apartment linked to the Corsican Mafia, yet!
But does the private, consenting-adult behavior of political figures matter much? At all? Hollande indignantly demanded ‘respect for privacy, to which each citizen has a right.’ Trierweiler was hospitalized (on the national health bill?) for ‘a severe attack of the blues’. While the media continue to dish up more juicy details of the affair, and 50 million tongues wag, the magazine L’Express scolds the nation: ‘The president’s conduct is not a question of morals, but of ethics.’
It’s a high-minded distinction. A reminder to get back to the business of State. It’s also wrong. Ethics may or may not play a part in this story, but morality sure does. Don’t citizens have a right to rumors and bourgeois reactions? In the real world we small folk can’t help but try to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the powerful. To ask ourselves: would I have done that, in her/his place? If it had been done to me, how would I feel? It’s human nature to wonder who did right and who did wrong to whom and why. And to ask whether the ‘why’ might merit a pardon or a shunning,
Perhaps there’s a Darwinian imperative at work here. A survival edge to be gained. Most of us make scores of moral judgments every day. At the office, in the check-out line, on a crowded bus . First thing in the morning, sipping coffee, paused despite ourselves by a grainy picture in the news. Something deep inside wants to know who is good, and who is bad, and why we think so. We need to know why we think so…
Is Valerie Trierweiler a devoted companion betrayed, or an arriviste who stole other women’s men in the past?
Was Hollande, the French Walter Mitty, helpless to resist the transformative effect of power on his ability to seduce very pretty women?
Can Valerie forgive him–not so much for his affair, as for her humiliation?
Is Julie Gayet in love?
Does Francois love France? Enough to be her President?
A last point-de-vue remark…
It’s bad enough for this country to be once again plunged into a mucky sex scandal while the world looks on. What’s worse for the real normal guy is that this time, the pointed fingers are shaking with suppressed laughter than outrage. Hollande bears no resemblance to the larger-than-life roués in the grand and terrible tradition–he is no DSK, no polygamist Mitterand, no droit-de-seigneur Vert Galant or Louis XIV. He comes off as a stock figure in a boulevard comedy. You can see his type in four or five plays currently on the boards at theaters around town, none of them very good.