A contrast in press cultures as Hollande affair leaves French press unmoved

Opinion: There is something unsettling about the apparent Gallic belief that deceit in marriage is a sign of sophistication

There have, in recent weeks, been few more amusing phenomena than the spectacle of the British media pondering their French counterparts' attitude to François Hollande's surprising affair. A mere 20 miles of salt water separates France from the United Kingdom, but, such are certain cultural differences, the British may as well have been considering the many-headed lizard people of Zargon V.

Let’s get this straight. The hitherto unglamorous president – romantic partner to journalist Valérie Trierweiler – has regularly been transported to a smart flat for assignations with a very mildly famous actor.

There's more. The French incarnation of Closer magazine has photographs of the politician looking uncomfortable on the back of a motorcycle. This is gold. Yet the French newspapers seem largely uninterested.

After allowing the president 40 minutes of waffle at a press conference, the man from Le Figaro did eventually ask a cosy question on the matter. But, for the most part, the papers have used the story to highlight the prurient nature of thuggish overseas media.


"The Anglo-Saxon press is astonished at the prudence of French journalists," Le Figaro bellowed. "British newspapers criticise the 'deference' of the French press, while the Americans are thrown by the respect for their private lives afforded political leaders."

Obviously, the affair will trigger no great shifts in political direction. Few in the British media are pretending so much. What really astonishes les rosbifs are the squandered opportunities for satire. Just imagine if David Cameron had been photographed on the pillion, arms round the rider, travelling to an afternoon of spanking in Bayswater. There would be an orgy of aneurysms at Private Eye magazine. It's just so darn funny.

Cultural distinctions
Much has been made of the cultural distinctions in Ireland also. But the domestic newspapers could be forgiven for taking deep breaths before wading in with all cudgels unsheathed.

To this point, the respectable French media have not only refused to investigate hints of romantic scandals involving politicians; they have also declined to publish details of affairs that are well known to even les chiens dans la rue.

If the slightest hint of John Major's dalliance with Edwina Currie had reached the UK tabloids, those politicians would have been immediately buried in salacious headlines. You probably have to go back to Dorothy Macmillan's affair with bisexual Tory Bob Boothby to get a hint of British media hushing up sexual shenanigans around the prime minster's bedroom (and Lady Dorothy was unelected).

Yet it is not too long ago that a married taoiseach (now no longer with us) carried on an affair with an equally married gossip columnist (also passed on) that was known to any journalist who went about without a bucket on his or her head. The female party even detailed much of their doings pseudonymously in her column, but nothing specific appeared in the papers until beans were spilled on the Late Late Show.

That silence may have had as much to do with fear as with respect. Either way, the arrangement is eerily reminiscent of that which allowed successive French presidents to keep their liaisons out of the press.

Neither side is in the clear here. The French are correct to detect a strain of industrial-strength prurience in the British media’s approach. Any sighting of Mr Cameron on an incriminating motorbike would, most likely, elbow stories on inflation, Scottish independence and continuing wars into the gutter for weeks.

Yet there is something unsettling about this Gallic notion that behaving like a lying jerk is a sign of sophistication. Here is the apparent argument: not only are such infidelities nobody else’s business, they are to be expected of any grown-up, urbane politician (if he’s a man, anyway). The English are such fuddy-duddies with their jealousy, their divorces and their prying, raincoated hacks.

Those photographs of a spectacled man being biked to his shag-pad in mid-afternoon puts the lie to the notion that such affairs reek of class. This was more Confessions of a Window Cleaner than Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Not so funny
The emotional damage is, however, more significant than the aesthetic infelicities.
I suggested above that the story was enormously funny. It is, presumably, not so for Valérie Trierweiler. It emerged this week that, following the revelations, the journalist had been taken to hospital after slipping into depression. How unsophisticated of her not to assume that her domestic partner – despite having to run Europe's fourth largest country – spends hours of the day abed with another woman. How childish of her to be upset.

At any rate, it looks as if the French public are no longer quite so blasé about such things. The print run of last week's Closer sold out within hours. Good luck getting the toothpaste back in the tube.