Friday, June 22, 2007

The Veil of French Politics

By Judith Warner
Domestic Disturbances
The New York Times
June 21, 2007

Ségolène Royal was the first woman from a major political party to run for President of France. She was the first French cabinet minister to give birth while in office. And now she has become the first French political figure to break up with her boyfriend – Socialist party head Francois Hollande, her concubin, according to French law, and the father of her four children – on the public airwaves.

“I’ve proposed to Francois Hollande that he live his life on his own, and he has accepted,” she told France Inter radio last Saturday, in a taped interview whose airing was intended to coincide with the publication of a new tell-all book, “Ségolène Royal, Behind the Scenes of a Defeat.” In that book, Royal put things even more clearly: “I have asked Francois Hollande to leave the house to live his love affair, now spread out in books and newspapers, on his own.”

Hollande, apparently, learned that their separation had been finalized and was being made public from a French newswire story. “It was like she was firing one of her ministers!” Claude Askolovitch – the co-author, with former Royal collaborator Eric Besson, of the anti-Ségolène screed “Who Knows Madame Royal?” – exclaimed on the phone to me, “That’s not how you do things!”
Not until now, anyway.

In the United States, much has been made of Royal as the first woman to climb to the very, very top of French politics. But in France, the woman question has never really gotten her all that much traction. Instead, Royal has come to be associated with another, more questionable sort of revolution: the peopolisation (think: “People-ization”) of the French political process.

Royal has for decades lived her highly photogenic life in front of the cameras. In 1992, when she was minister of the environment, she invited Paris Match (France’s People magazine) and a television crew into her maternity ward to photograph her newborn baby, Flora – and to document the presence of a mini-mountain of government dossiers spread out across her bed.

She justified this unusual incursion into her private life on the grounds that it advanced “the cause of women.” She also posed at home with Hollande and their children to showcase the kind of “organization” that was necessary to balance high-level government work with the needs of a large family, and scored big points – with this consumer of celebrity news, at least – when she was photographed, bikini-clad (at 53!), on a beach on the Atlantic coast last summer.

Flat belly aside, all this exposure isn’t necessarily shocking from an American perspective. Royal’s penchant for making the personal political can even be seen as an admirable form of public expression for a woman who has consistently spoken out on behalf of working women and their families since escaping from the home of her domineering, authoritarian father in the 1970s. But it’s been a major style shift for France, where the separation between public and private life has traditionally been so absolute – and protected so assiduously by the judicial system, politicians and the inner court of Parisian journalists who cover (and sometimes sleep with) them – that Francois Mitterrand was for decades able to maintain, at taxpayer expense, an illegitimate daughter and a mistress without the knowledge of the broader electorate.

This secrecy, we might say, is self-serving and elitist. But it has also led to a somewhat higher level of political discourse than Monkey Business and Monicagate.

At base, the French would say (they said it to me, in fact, incessantly, when I was there covering politics at the time of the Clinton impeachment scandal), it’s emblematic of a profound philosophical difference that sets them apart from Americans: the fact that the French don’t subscribe to the idea of “transparency.” “Transparency,” in this context, is the notion that a person’s innermost soul is revealed in each and every one of his or her acts. To believe in that kind of transparency is naïve, the French believe; it’s more realistic to recognize that human behavior is murky and messy and, in the case of politicians in particular, often highly compartmentalized. So it’s pointless to make sweeping judgments about a person’s political valor by his or her private life – and it’s none of the public’s business, anyway.

That attitude, apparently, is now changing. The 2007 presidential election brought France its first true Internet-age campaign, and the blogosphere was rife with citizens weighing in on the personal lives of “Sarko” and “Ségo” – though many held their noses all the while. As candidate, Nicholas Sarkozy certainly did his bit before the cameras, appearing, ripplingly, in a pair of Nike shorts for a paparazzi-chaperoned summer jog and hamming it up for photo ops in the (brief) periods when his estranged wife, Cécilia, decided to appear at his side.

Yet Sarkozy also did things the old-fashioned way: reportedly pressuring a friendly publisher to squelch publication of a tell-all about his wife (it was subsequently reborn as a novel about a woman named Célia), and demanding the firing of a Paris Match editor who published photos of Cécilia’s lover.

Only Royal truly pushed the envelope. “I needed truth, clarity and transparency,” she said on France-Inter this week, justifying her decision to go public and tell (almost) all. This was a personal need; it was a necessity for her children, she said. But, she also implied, it was a good thing for the fractured state of France. “I think truth and clarification of the situation is an element of appeasement,” she said.

I don’t know if that’s true. I think that transparency – as an excuse for publicly airing dirty laundry – is far overrated. Recent history has shown us, after all, that there’s no genuine connection between being a “good” person and doing good as a politician. Straight-laced, God-fearing, wife-abiding Good Men have long brought us policies that do a great deal of harm to major portions of our population, while philanderers have managed to do a lot of good.

The capacity for successful compartmentalization – not a Jimmy Carteresque devotion to personal transparency – is probably among the most important character traits required of a person who would be president. Royal may have had it (during the campaign, she said on France Inter, she put her personal problems “in parentheses”), but in the wake of her recent failure, she’s clearly lost it. And a lot of her personal dignity – hard-won, and long-established – has fallen by the wayside as well.

Whatever one might have thought of Royal as a presidential candidate (and I was not a fan), there’s no denying that she has, for decades, been an exceptional woman. It’s a pity now that, in the wake of her electoral defeat, she is taking what was formerly a quite worthwhile aspect of l’exception francaise down with her.

Judith Warner's book, "Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety" (excerpt, NPR interview), a New York Times best-seller, was published in February 2005. She is currently the host of "The Judith Warner Show" on XM Satellite Radio. "Domestic Disturbances" appears every Friday.


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