On 10 January 2014, the French celebrity magazine Closer (which has on its masthead “les stars et les news people en live”) published a seven page special edition entitled “L’amour secret du President“. It claimed that French President, François Hollande, was having a secret affair with actor Julie Gayet.
The magazine published photographs showing a man in a motorcycle helmet outside what it said was Ms Gayet’s Paris apartment, along with a man reported to be the president’s bodyguard.
President Hollande, 59, is unmarried but lives with 48-year-old French journalist Valerie Trierweiler. Shortly after publication he issued a statement which did not comment on the question of whether or not he was having an affair but said that he “deeply deplores the attacks on the principle of respect for privacy, to which he, like every citizen, has a right“. He said that he was considering legal action. Shortly afterwards Closer took the story down from its website.
The impact of the story on the lives of the individuals involved was underlined by reports that Ms Trierweiler had been admitted to hospital on Friday “with exhaustion”.
The French public are neither concerned nor shocked by the relevations. An opinion poll published in the Journal du Dimanche, which found that 77% of respondents believed the affair was a personal matter and 84% said their opinion of President Hollande was unchanged by the revelations.
But were these revelations in the public interest? French privacy law is generally thought to be the strictest in Europe but, even in France, there appears to be an argument that the disclosure could be justified in the public interest.
In an interview in the newspaper Le Figaro, leading French media lawyer Christoper Bigot noted that President Hollande could bring an action under Article 9 of the Code Civil seeking symbolic damages of €1 and the publication of the Court’s judgment. But he went on to point out that Closer could defend the action
“Of course, François Hollande has the right to protection of her private life but he is a president, which limits his rights. All the facts of his private life that affect the public sphere can be matters of legitimate debate”
Mr Bigot went on to suggest a number of possible “public interest” arguments which Closer might deploy
“If a president has a double life, there may be gaps in his schedule, the relationship may lead him to take security risk, or to switch off his mobile phone, this affects the public sphere. Moreover, it raises questions about thepresentation of the presidential couple (travel, tree, galette des Rois …). We are in a gray area. The citizen can not be the right to know the details of the private life of the president, but he is forced to be more transparent than a showbiz personality”.
Although photographs of the President going to Ms Gayet’s apartment would be illegal, the public may have a right to know of his activities if they affect his public functions.
Mr Bigot went on to point out that action by Ms Gayet would be more straightforward as the relationship did not affect her profession.
The BBC’s Europe Editor, Gavin Hewitt, suggests that the disclosure raises a number of questions
“was there a security risk in the president of France moving around Paris on the back of a scooter? Was he vulnerable to attack or kidnap? When he remained at the apartment overnight did bodyguards stay with him? Who owned the apartment and were they trustworthy? What if news of the apartment had leaked to enemies of France or of the president? Were these risks that the president should have taken? Were public officials persuaded to cover up for the president?”
He goes on to suggest that the position of Ms Trierweiler – who as “First Lady” has an office at the Elysee Palace with six staff – gives rise to public interest questions. This angle was taken up by the Daily Mail which suggested that an overwhelming majority of the French public would like to see Ms Trierweiler split from President Hollande. This is not, however, an approach which has been developed by the French press.
A number of commentators have pointed out that the Closer story does, however, seem to demonstrate a change of approach by the French media which has, traditionally, not reported on the extra-marital (or “extra relationship”) affairs of senior politicians. As the New York Times comments
“a combination of factors, including the Internet and the very public soap opera around former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s divorce and subsequent marriage to a model-turned-singer, Carla Bruni, has changed the news media’s appetite for intimate glimpses into the lives of powerful men”.