Imagine if the current president of the United States, Barack Obama, were alleged to have a sexual affair with a Hollywood film starlet decades younger than him -- say, Halle Berry. (And that he was photographed sneaking away from his lover’s flat via moped.) Now, let’s also say that the revelation of this illicit affair made Obama’s first lady, Michelle, so upset and distraught that she had to be hospitalized for “shock.” Then, let’s suppose that Barack and Michelle were not even legally married to each other, but “living together” in the White House. Moreover, let’s propose that Barack has no intention of ever marrying Michelle and that he had left his previous girlfriend (another top political figure, with whom he has four children) seven years ago for Michelle.
On top of all that, let’s consider that the U.S. is facing a huge deficit and high unemployment and that Barack is one of the most unpopular presidents in history (OK, this last entry is not too far-fetched at all). Now, let’s imagine that during a press conference before hundreds of rabid, aggressive reporters, Obama delivered a speech on what he wants to do to fix the economy -- but all anyone wants to talk about are his sexual affairs (which the president refuses to publicly discuss, at least for now).
It would be a media circus to end all media circuses, no? Well, this is exactly what is currently happening in France.
A celebrity tabloid magazine in France called Closer has alleged that 59-year-old French president Francois Hollande has been engaging in a sexual affair with a 41-year-old film actress named Julie Gayet (there are even claims that she may be four months pregnant). Hollande’s “first lady,” Valerie Trierweiler, 48, has since been placed in a hospital for what the French media has characterized as “emotional shock” (though U.S. media would likely call it “stress” or “exhaustion”). Even more amazing, it’s not certain that Hollande has even visited Trierweiler in the hospital (where she has spent the last four of five days) or if he will continue or maintain their relationship -- meaning, she could potentially lose her plum position as unofficial “first lady” (with privileges paid for by the beleaguered French taxpayer).
Of course, there are many crucial differences between the U.S. president and the saga that's engulfing France: Barack and Michelle Obama are legally married; to the best of anyone’s knowledge, have not cheated on each other during their marriage; and, more importantly, the French have a very different view regarding the private lives of powerful, prominent figures. In France, Italy and some other European nations, leading politicians and businessmen are almost “required” to have mistresses (recall that when former French President François Mitterrand was buried, both his wife and longtime mistress attended the funeral, with nary an awkward moment between them).
Of course, many American politicians also have had illicit affairs (see the biographies of Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Newt Gingrich, John Edwards and scores of others). The key difference lies with the practice of discretion in Europe vs. the maniacally hungry U.S. (and to be fair, British) tabloid media that feasts on political sex scandals. But now, with the rapid emergence of social media, including Facebook and Twitter, even the continent is not safe for politicians to enjoy their private peccadilloes in peace. Indeed, Hollande has threatened to sue Closer for violating his privacy (in decades past such legal maneuvers wouldn't even have been necessary).
Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City, commented that if an American president were involved in a Hollande-type soap opera, he could emerge from its relatively unscathed if he were honest about his transgressions and “effectively followed a political mea culpa strategy.” “He could come through the scandal, and limit some of the damage to his credibility,” Chandler said.
Still, where adultery is concerned, the stakes are very high for a sitting U.S. president. “Part of the damage depends on how a President markets his moral background,” Chandler noted. “If he were to make heavy play of his Christian beliefs and then have an affair, he'd have a tough time getting out of it. But typically, he'd have many defenders from his supporters and political party.”
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of Political Science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., said that if we were to have a scandal of the Hollande magnitude in the US it’s likely the 'president' would survive unless he or she did something illegal. “One under-explored aspect of the US reaction to scandal is that like our reactions to most things, it’s very legalistic,” she said. “[19th century French political thinker and historian Alexis de] Tocqueville spoke about this so many years ago and it holds true today - almost every conflict and issue in the US eventually finds its way into court. And in the case of scandals, you find the public differentiates between illegal or unconstitutional activity versus everything else.”
For “everything else” (even if immoral or unethical) one can be forgiven and survive; but for those who commit illegal/unconstitutional acts, it’s unlikely they can survive, she noted.
But there is something else to consider here -- and that is the very nature of US society versus the lifestyles in Europe. I was reminded of how different the U.S. is from continental Europe by something that conservative firebrand Rush Limbaugh (of all people) said on his radio show. He compared the scandal surrounding Hollande with the dreary saga of New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, who is in deep political trouble for (allegedly) ordering, or at least facilitating, the closure of the George Washington Bridge to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J, for not supporting him in the recent elections. The Christie scandal has gained the name “Bridge-gate,” a tiresome reference to the Watergate scandal from four decades ago.
Limbaugh’s point was (I think) that U.S. scandals are rather dull and depressing, while European political scandals are far more riveting, interesting and enjoyable, “Why can’t we have scandals like that [Hollande] anymore?” Limbaugh asked. “Why can’t we have Obama running around on Michelle or something? Look, it’s just wishful thinking. Wouldn’t that be a much better scandal than Christie and bridge lane closures, for crying out loud?”
Limbaugh (no fan of the French or their Socialist political system) even praised Hollande indirectly. “The socialists, in one sense of the word, know how to live,” he said. On this point, Limbaugh is exactly right -- the current imbroglio in France offers sex, beautiful women, cheating, glamor, power, opulence, movie stars, psychiatric breakdown, adultery, high fashion and palaces (like something out of a hard-to-believe movie).
In contrast, the Christie “scandal” offers, uh … a traffic-choked industrial bridge in New Jersey. Even worse, the most recent high-profile “sex scandal“ in U.S. politics involved the woebegone and unspeakable pathetic former New York congressman and failed mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who did not even physically cheat on his wife, but rather sent sexually charged text messages to women, none of whom are his wife. (He also dubbed himself with the bizarre and laughable nickname of ‘Carlos Danger.’).
Zaino commented that by comparison with what is going on in France with Hollande - which seems almost operatic - our 'scandals' of late seem downright placid if not boring. “That may help explain why late last year we looked to our neighbors to the North and focused so much attention on the antics of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford,” she said. “
I ask you, between Bridgegate, Carlos Danger, crackhead Ford and L’Affaire Hollande, which scandal holds your interest more?
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.