Is a president’s private life anyone’s affair?

AN illicit love affair is so quintessentially French that revelations of President François Hollande’s clandestine meetings with Julie Gayet have been greeted by the French with a shrug.

Is a president’s private life anyone’s affair?

The term cinq à sept (the hours between 5pm and 7pm) was coined to describe a visit by a gentleman to his mistress.

The Elysée palace — France’s president’s workplace — has been the venue for much hanky-panky. In 1899, President Felix Faure died there in the arms of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil. Le président was allegedly in pursuit of what may blushingly be described as le petit mort, and his mistress was assisting.

French journalists have been restrained about presidential infidelity. Journalists knew that François Mitterand had a daughter with his mistress, but the fact was not published by the media until the year before his death. When wife and mistress attended his funeral, in 1996, the story was reported sensitively.

Nicholas Sarkozy attracted media interest because his presidency began with a divorce from his second wife, and continued with his marriage to Carla Bruni.

Hollande’s began with feuding between his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, and Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children.

Speculation as to the nature of Hollande’s relationship with Gayet began circulating on the internet last year, but mainstream French media ignored it. But when Closer magazine published photographs of the president travelling by moped to a night-time meeting with the actress and made global headlines, French journalists had to join the scrum. Even then, those covering the president’s subsequent press conference were restrained in their questioning, not unlike the empathic Daily Mirror, in a 1963 editorial on revelations that British War Minister John Profumo had lied to MPs about his relationship with the model and party-girl, Christine Keeler, to protect his family: “The Daily Mirror does not kick a man when he is down. Mr Profumo, who married a beautiful and pleasant woman, is now down and out. … But there is guilt in many a human heart and skeletons in many cupboards…”

The French public have backed Hollande’s reluctance to explain his relationship with Gayet. In a poll, 75% of them said he was right not to answer questions about his personal life, while 62% believed his relationship with Gayet was a private matter.

Is this French tolerance because so many of them are hiding dangerous liaisons of their own? We Irish are no less partial to infidelity: 40% of respondents to a 2012 Millward Brown Lansdowne survey admitted being unfaithful.

Bed-hopping is common, but Irish broadsheets turn a blind eye to the romantic peccadilloes of public figures.

Sex scandals, Irish-style, tend to be dull: Ronan Keating’s fling with a dancer? Yawn. Bertie Ahern and Celia? Sigh. Paddy Hillery calling a press conference to deny cheating on his wife? Puzzling.

The more interesting stories are past: the marriage between Charles Stewart Parnell and Kitty O’Shea, which cost him his political career; the shocking revelation that lost Bishop Eamon Casey his crozier; and the long-term romance between Charlie Haughey and Terry Keane, which both titillated and infuriated the nation.

When Keane sold the story of her affair to the Sunday Times, pity for Haughey was at its peak, and two-thirds of those polled by the Sunday Independent disapproved of her decision.

When Emmet Stagg was discovered in an area of the Phoenix Park often frequented by male prostitutes, he was questioned by Gardaí and released without charge. Even so, the tabloids covered it extensively.

Whereas Irish broadsheets traditionally didn’t engage in the feeding frenzy that is the British tabloids’ approach to the sexual shenanigans of the rich or famous, that’s changing. It has to, given the public appetite for stories by the red-tops, and by the camera-carrying public.

It was a passer-by who photographed Charles Saatchi with his hands around Nigella Lawson’s neck, and a fellow party-goer who publicised images of Prince Harry’s pool-side antics at a private party in Las Vegas.

Sometimes it’s family members who blow the whistle on private sexual activity.

In 2008, a married Dublin woman, who had an affair with a parish priest, was awarded damages for invasion of privacy, against the publishers of Ireland on Sunday. To obtain the evidence he required, the woman’s husband taped her phone calls without her knowledge, then handed the tapes to the press. This was the first occasion on which damages for breach of privacy were awarded in Ireland.

While François Hollande has confirmed that he will not be suing Closer magazine for violation of privacy, Julie Gayet is doing just that.

Valérie Trierweiler, meanwhile, has signalled that she is willing to forgive the president.

His response? To say this week that there will be ‘no more first ladies at the Elysée.’

Sex scandals — Irish style

Charles Stewart Parnell

Parnell’s relationship with Kitty O’Shea played a central part in his political downfall.

Bishop Eamon Casey

Bishop Casey fathered a child with his housekeeper, Annie Murphy. Their son was 18 when the story broke.

Charlie Haughey

His 27-year affair with social diarist Terry Keane was an open secret.

Chris de Burgh

The singer had an affair with his children’s nanny, while his wife was recovering in hospital after a fall from a horse.

Bertie Ahern

He admitted that his affair with Celia Larkin played a role in the break-up of his marriage.

Ronan Keating

His fling with a backing dancer ended his marriage.

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