WORLD

Opening the boudoir doors

Coverage of a marital breakup hints at a change in the French media

PAUL WELLS July 2 2007
WORLD

Opening the boudoir doors

Coverage of a marital breakup hints at a change in the French media

PAUL WELLS July 2 2007

Opening the boudoir doors

WORLD

Coverage of a marital breakup hints at a change in the French media

PAUL WELLS

When the news broke, a little before 10:30 on the night of France’s parliamentary elections, nobody knew what to do with it. “Ségolène Royal announces that she is separated from François Hollande,” the impeccable France 2 anchor, David Pujadas, told the cameras. Hardly an uninteresting bit of news. Hollande is the French Socialist party’s secretary general, Royal its failed presidential candidate. He is the father of her children. They were already suing two journalists for violation of privacy for claiming in a recent book that the Hollande-Royal relationship was on the rocks. Now, in another book, Royal was admitting on the record that she’d kicked her partner out for cheating.

A week earlier, when it looked like the Socialists would fare worse than they did in the election, one indiscreet young Socialist pol had let slip that he was “tired of having the Socialist party’s story turn into the story of a couple.” But now that the couple had stolen the spotlight in the middle of election night, a stubborn French instinct to look the other way prevailed. Briefly, at least. Around the France 2 election table, panellists wore the purse-lipped scowl that is de rigueur when refusing to discuss something juicy. “A private matter,” shrugged Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, speaking for the sangfroid crowd.

That didn’t last long. The next morning Le Figaro, fusty standard-bearer for old-time propriety in the discussion of politicians’ private lives, carried not a word about the Hollande-Royal split. But Le Parisien, a somewhat cheekier Paris tabloid, shoved the election news up into a little box above the masthead to make room for a half-page picture of Royal and Hollande frowning at each other under a screamer headline, “The Rupture.”

Clearly France’s journalists were struggling with how to cover this intimate drama. But given the year they’ve been having, it’s not hard to see why. Again and again, Gallic discretion has been shown up by unmannered foreign reporters—and by a burgeoning alternative and electronic media, far less willing than France’s big old media titans to print

only what the authorities want the people of France to see and read.

French news organizations have long been far more determinedly discreet about politicians’ private lives than journalists in English-speaking countries, which helps explain how nobody knew about François Mitterrand’s daughter Mazarine Pingeot, born out of wedlock, until she and her mother showed up at his funeral. In 2005, when Paris Match ran a photo of Nicolas Sarkozy’s then-estranged wife stepping out with another man, Sarkozy

had the magazine’s editor sacked.

Lesson learned and relearned: don’t rock the boat. It can be a pretty comfy boat, after all. In France, press cards are handed out, after an arduous application process, by the state, but if you have one you can walk into museums for free and look forward to hefty income-tax deductions, just for being a reporter. But then the cozy relationship between politicians and their sources was rattled by a succession of events this year.

In January, then-president Jacques Chirac summoned several reporters to the Elysée presidential palace to talk about a planned environmental summit. One asked about Iran’s nuclear ambitions instead, and Chirac veered rather seriously off message. “One or two” Iranian nukes would not be very dangerous, he said. “Where will it drop, this bomb? On Israel? It would not have gone 200 metres into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed.”

The very next day, the same reporters were invited back to the Elysée where Chirac laboriously retracted the touchy statements. Most went along with the odd two-step. At first only the two New York Times reporters told their readers about Chirac’s original comments. And they blew away a few more taboos by mentioning that Chirac had “suffered a neurological episode” in 2005, and that in the first interview he “appeared distracted” and his “hands shook slightly.” Chirac’s staff saw in the Times article an unacceptable attempt by outsiders to mock the president personally.

But more was on the way. On June 7, Sarkozy, newly elected to succeed Chirac, attended his first major international gathering, the G8 summit at Heiligendamm. Sarkozy left a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and rushed, late, into a news conference, where he appeared confused, giggled

incongruously, and smirked as he mentioned the “length of my dialogue with President Putin.” French reporters at the event saw nothing unusual to report. An anchor for Belgium’s RTBF added two and two and told his viewers that, “apparently,” Sarkozy and Putin “didn’t only drink water.”

Video of the Belgian news item was the hottest thing on YouTube for days. French newspapers, which had ignored the president’s comportment, covered foreign coverage of his comportment. Again, the staff at Elysée Palace was furious—so much so that the Belgian anchorman formally apologized to the French government. But even as the affair snowballed, the debate was led by outsiders. Le Monde carried a commentary by Richard Werly, a Swiss reporter who’d been at the infamous news conference—and who concluded that Sarkozy was not drunk on alcohol but intoxicated with the drama of the moment. “Mostly drunk to be there,” Werly concluded. “Stewed by his own words.”

This time, at least, the Hollande-Royal drama was covered primarily by French reporters. Early word of the couple’s difficulty came in a book published last month by two Le Monde reporters, Raphaelle Bacqué and Ariane Chemin. For their pains, they were slapped with a 150,000-euro lawsuit by the benighted couple. Then along came the new book by two AFP reporters, Christine Courcol and Thierry Masure, complete with interview quotations from Royal herself. The book’s orderly rollout was ruined by a feeding frenzy as two different news organizations carried rumours of the book’s contents on their websites. Finally, AFP sent the news out in the middle of election night.

Was the blanket coverage of the RoyalHollande drama a sign of a cultural change in the French media? “I hope so,” Bacqué said. “I’m astonished that the French press still waits for permission from political leaders before publishing information that clearly reverberates in politics.”

Much of the week’s coverage has been led, not by newspapers, but by their new media competitors. A fearless political website, www. rue89.com, went so far as to ask whether Royal had maintained the fiction of a solid home life to boost her electoral chances. Julien Martin, who wrote that article, told Maclean’s that Rue89’s staff was “very divided” about whether to cover such a subject. “The staff split 50-50.” Readers, unfamiliar with such intimate subjects, were more categorical: Rue89 allows readers to grade each article and Martin’s article received very low marks. But, Martin pointed out, the article also had a lot of readers. So French audiences may not like personal news, but they read it. How very Anglo-Saxon of them. M