What does a titillating story in a gossip magazine tell us about the nature of politics in France? On Friday 10 January Closer magazine revealed, with several pages of photographs, that French President François Hollande was having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet (with his trusted bodyguard bringing up the rear with early morning croissants). One of the striking things about French reaction - probably unique among Western democracies - was that first the political class, from Marine le Pen on the far-right, right across the political spectrum, with only one or two dissenting voices, claimed that this was about Hollande's private life and was not a political issue; and second, this was reflected in public opinion - the overwhelming majority of respondents on television, radio, and in public opinion polls (e.g. the Journal du Dimanche, 12 January) agreed that this was a private affair and Hollande had the same well-protected rights to privacy as any other French citizen. This is all framed, moreover, in a considerably more liberal-minded attitude to extra-marital affairs (although ironically Hollande is not married to France's First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler - nor was he to his long-time partner, Ségolène Royal). Hollande, however, is not 'any other' French citizen, and the affair may further undermine the authority of the President, and even the legitimacy of the Republic.
The indulgence accorded by the political class and public opinion to private life contrasts with the fact that France is the country where politicians and everybody else's private lives are the constant stuff of conversation, rumour, hearsay, and now, with the web's relentless 24-hour scrutiny and discussion, minute, detailed attention. One only needs to look at the 1000s of 'reactions' to the newspaper and blog reports on Mme Trierweiler's admission to hospital on Friday 10th to see how 'uninterested' the French are. In fact, a lot of people, particularly in showbiz and the media, already knew about Holland and Gayet, hence, in fact, the Closer paparazzi's all-night diligence and patience over the road from Ms Gayet's flat - lent to her by a friend - just round the corner from the Elysée Palace.
Another Journal du Dimanche poll of 12 January also claimed that 84% of the French had not changed their opinion of Hollande after the Closer revelations. This begs many questions, and probably tells us more about public attitudes to him than to dalliance. The President and his team have taken heart from these two polls. They are very foolish to do so. Hollande was already so unpopular (down to a legitimacy-threatening 15% in some polls), an 84% no change response suggests a President who fills popular sentiment with utter indifference rather than approval or indulgence. And as for the poll about his life being his private affair, it really depends upon what we mean by private life. The French presidency is already a very public, private life. Given the personalised nature of French politics, and especially of the French presidency, this incident will have a series of incremental, related, and over time, profound effects upon all those concerned, and even perhaps upon the French Republic itself.
If Hollande is not to die by 1000 cuts, he needs to be aware that there will immediately be a series of questions taken forward by journalists and politicians: was any public money involved in any of this? Whose flat exactly was it? And if he, in fact, has had no relationship with Trierveiler, possibly since the beginning of his mandate, why does she have an office in the Elysée, and three assistants, and accompanies him on his official visits etc. It is probable that investigative journalists (of all moral hues) are already digging away like mad in a score of little corners. What about Hollande's judgement and honesty - is it really acceptable for the occupant of the country's highest office to be caught zipping round the streets in disguise and cheating on his partner? What was he doing during those dangerous moments when he was about to fire Exocet missiles or whatever at Bashar-Al-Assad in September 2013? (We can imagine the cartoons: by comparison, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK as a beacon of chastity). What was he doing getting the world to accept that although not married, Valérie Trierweiler should have the status of a Michelle Obama; and what does Michelle Obama think of having to meet as an equal on the world stage just the latest of Hollande's girlfriends, and, as it turns out, not even the latest? What does the Catholic community in France and elsewhere think of Valérie and François being presented in February 2014 to the excessively admired other François, the Pope, who had agreed to make an exception to Vatican protocol in the French President's case (stop the press: President Hollande will no doubt now be presented alone). And the Obamas are scheduled to meet the French President - and his partner - next month too... What about the security implications? If the Closer team had been an Al-Qaeda hit squad, he would be dead. This is the man leading operations in Mali and now the Central African Republic. And then there is the question of his real motivations. From a psychoanalytic point of view, this affair is a classic case of an unconscious desire to be found out, for reasons only a shrink and her patient would know, but which we can all now wonder about, as well as wonder what might be the implications of such unconscious desire for Hollande's relationship to his own presidency.
And then there is the sense of Vaudeville created by the whole affair. This is not Leslie Howard and Celia Johnson, nor Anna Karenin and Count Vronsky. Hollande unfortunately looks more like your friendly local family butcher - albeit surrounded by a plethora of frankly attractive women, which paradoxically lends the whole issue the quality of a Feydeau farce. And the Closer pictures of Hollande arriving for his trysts on the back of a scooter disguised by his crash helmet (croissants at the ready) lends an inspector Clouseau quality to the affair, French accent included.
But the real issue, and the real interest here, is what 'Gayet-gate' tells us about the French Fifth Republic and its dysfunctional mixing of the practical and the symbolic at the summit of power. Hollande is constitutionally the Head of State, but practically the Head of Government. And one of the ways this strange office functions - unknown elsewhere in democracies, including the United States - is through the deployment of the 'character' of François Hollande, a character, incidentally, who came to power as a straightforward, discreet, Mr Normal who would put an end to the narcissistic, look-at-me! look-at-me! attention-seeking, Nicolas Sarkozy. Well, we've gone, in fact, from Paris Match down to Closer magazine, and Hollande has brought no more dignity to this highly-charged personalised and symbolic office than he accused Sarkozy of having squandered. The French presidency is like a malfunctioning version of the 'King's Two Bodies', one transcendent, one mortal. The general evolution of the French presidency - ironically, an institution beloved of and revered by the French - has, in the recent past, begun to drag the sacred towards the profane. This will have major effects over the coming period upon Hollande's already dwindling authority, and the legitimacy of the Republic.
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and the Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His two most recent publications are The Presidents of the French Fifth Republic (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) and Political Leadership in France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, paperback 2012).