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Are French Attitudes to Politicians' Private Lives Healthier?

28/01/2014 13:31 GMT | Updated 29/03/2014 09:59 GMT

If you've been reading the papers in Britain over the last couple of weeks, you've probably heard about Francois Hollande's turbulent private life. The French President's exploits have been reported, analysed, and subjected to the scrutiny of public opinion on a fantastic scale in the UK. Hollande's reputed affair has, of course, made the headlines of major French newspapers, but the French seem far less interested in his love life than we do over the channel.

As an Erasmus student at a French university, I've been able to follow not only the course of the affair, but the responses of some of the brightest, best-educated young people in France towards the revelations. Unsurprisingly, as has been reported in British media outlets, many of them feel that the President's private life is his own business. Quite frankly, the vast majority of those I've spoken to are baffled by the depth of British interest.

These French students, it seems, are simply uninterested in what goes on behind closed doors; when Julie Gayet came up in conversation shortly after Closer's revelations, at least half of those involved didn't have the slightest idea of who she might be. Many of these students grew up with the political legacies of Mitterand and Chirac; the former housed his mistress in the Elysee itself, whilst the latter was well-known for his extravagant romantic endeavours.

More than this, their relative lack of curiosity might be put down to more fundamental, cultural differences between the French and the British. The voyeurism which underpins tabloid newspapers and reality television in the UK is very much a construct of Anglophonic media in Britain and the USA, or the anglosaxone world, as the French see it. Closer, the very magazine which revealed Hollande's misdemeanour, is a British magazine which has been exported to France.

Other instruments which enable the British public to engage in relentless social scrutiny have less of a foothold across the channel; it might be marginal, but 4% less of the French population are on Facebook, the ultimate tool for 'stalking' loose acquaintances and long-lost school friends. In my experience, conversations about the potential dangers of social media, or simply its banality, are far more common in Lyon than they are in Cambridge.

Many students are willing to defend Hollande, or at least his right to conduct his own affairs as he wishes outside of the media limelight. Some point out, quite validly, that he hasn't actually acted illegally, rather immorally, and that is a personal choice which has no influence upon his government. According to general consensus, as long as Hollande is properly performing his role as chef d'état, it doesn't matter what he does in his private life. Unfortunately for the President, however, many of these same students believe that he isn't fulfilling that task either.

There is without doubt a stark disparity between French and British attitudes to the lives of those in power in their respective countries. Unlike the French, the British public requires absolute moral infallibility in its most prominent politicians, which is problematic on many levels. Primarily, it locks certain individuals out of politics, because the discovery of wrongdoings committed in a politician's youth often leads to a tarnished reputation and widespread ridicule.

More importantly, such criticisms and judgements create a toxic political environment at local and national levels, as well as a counterproductive relationship between government and the media. Billy Connolly famously quipped that "the desire to become a politician should automatically disqualify that person from ever being one". It might have been tongue-in-cheek, but the point is certainly valid; faced with the prospect of such a poisonous political backdrop, and of the pressure of maintaining such a moral infallibility, how many of the brightest and most suitable individuals will choose a career in politics?

Even though we demand a flawless moral record of our key political figures, we are aware that they too are human and therefore likely to have made the same mistakes as us. Such hypocrisy creates mistrust, which is profoundly destructive to the British political establishment in its current form, because it plagues the relationship between popular democracy and its demographic. The British media and our politicians are thus trapped in a vicious cycle of voyeurism and saving-face.

Mistrust of politicians is not a novel phenomenon, and it's not unique to the British Isles. Socrates declared himself to be "too honest a man to be a politician and live". It's understandable that we are wary of handing over the reins of legislative power to any small group, and it is important that we choose the appropriate candidates to fill those roles. Nonetheless, it seems that the current political climate dissuades all but the most squeaky-clean and thick-skinned individuals from competing for seats in the British government.

Evidently, a Prime Minister who repeatedly broke the laws he represented would have no credibility. This is why David Cameron had to defend himself so emphatically when it emerged that he had been disciplined at Eton for smoking cannabis; how can somebody represent and strengthen legislation that they themselves have willingly undermined? Yet the British public refuses to accept hypocrisy of such a degree, and it only serves to reinforce the popular opinion that politicians are disingenuous.

As a result, politicians strive to make themselves out to be as accessible and honest as possible, which has an impact upon policy and government itself. Politicians aren't allowed to make mistakes, and those that do aren't allowed to admit them. This is why many of our political debates involve key political figures avoiding fundamental questions, and reeling off a pre-prepared spiel in order to avoid toppling into ridicule or disrepute.

It is bizarre that we place so much emphasis on a politician's personal life past and present, particularly when it is common knowledge that young people make mistakes, and push boundaries. The unfaltering intolerance of the British public is made all the more incomprehensible in the context of statistics which show that more than a third of British adults have admitted to taking an illegal substance in their lifetime.

If we take into account all of the other apparently insignificant abuses of traffic and other laws committed daily by British adults, it starts to become difficult to understand how we continue to demand absolute moral infallibility from our politicians, particularly when many Britons don't practise what they preach. In an ideal world, we would have men and women with unblemished records in our seats of power, but then they would surely be alienated from their national constituency through a lack of life experience.

As it is, the British public are currently prioritising moral flawlessness, or at least an ability to conceal past wrongdoings, over creating a political backdrop against which the best candidates might enter into power. We might encourage more competent, experienced and capable individuals to enter into the British political sphere if there wasn't such a pressure to be whiter than white. Perhaps if we conceded that it is human to make mistakes, and to change one's mind, we might end up with the very best in the British government.