Skip to main content

Can France handle truth on sex lives of rich and powerful?

By Philippe Coste, Special to CNN
June 27, 2012 -- Updated 1715 GMT (0115 HKT)
Former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn no longer enjoys the level of privacy that he used to.
Former International Monetary Fund leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn no longer enjoys the level of privacy that he used to.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Philippe Coste: The DSK cases have given the press the chance to question the powerful
  • The most powerful in society used to enjoy silence and immunity, he says
  • He says DSK's demise in France could be seen as symbolic of a new era of openness
  • Coste: Despite the current publishing frenzy, most people would rather know less

Editor's note: Philippe Coste is the staff New York correspondent for the weekly L'Express. He also writes a blog on "lexpress.fr." His book, recently published in France, is about populism and the American justice system: "Quand la justice dérape" "When Justice goes off track."

(CNN) -- More than ever, the French are thinking and hearing about sex. Sex in high places, for a change. The thick wall that separated the public and private lives of our ruling elite and kept their backstage manners out of the headlines is now crumbling at a fast pace. And the Dominique Strauss-Kahn earthquake has a lot to do with it.

Two criminal cases against the former director of the International Monetary Fund, one closed in New York, the other still pending in northern France after his indictment for alleged promotion of prostitution, have given the press more than an opportunity, a civic obligation to tip-toe around our strict privacy laws and question, for the first time, their cozy gentleman's agreement with the powerful. Now what?

Philippe Coste
Philippe Coste

Things are changing. Today, Jean Quatremer, a journalist at the daily Liberation, tells in his new book how, nearly four years ago, he got the scoop about the opening of an internal investigation at the IMF on DSK's relationship with a subordinate; and how his editors of the time killed the story. (The Wall Street Journal finally got the tip).

Until this year, also, excellent journalists at Le Monde like Raphael Bacqué and Ariane Chemin would not have found a publisher willing to release their own book, "Les Strauss-Kahn," a chronicle of the life of DSK and his famous journalist wife Anne Sinclair. Now a best-seller, their investigation certainly describes numerous flavors of Strauss-Kahn's behavior. But it deals more with another relationship, the bizarre ménage à trois between the elite circles, French citizens and the truth.

In France, centuries of feudal privileges did not disappear at the birth of the Fifth Republic. In the last 40 years, most privacy laws were created not by the demand of citizens fearing the Big Brother state, but rather by the political class itself, to keep its safe distance from the electorate. And self-censorship ruled.

In a recent documentary (about DSK) a French media critic recalled the time when, as a rookie in 1982, he asked a seasoned correspondent at the Elysée what President Mitterrand did after work. The answer came, in a blasé voice that hinted at a banal routine: "He leaves his office around 6:30. Then, he just spends the evening with his second family." This fact was made public only in 1994, when Mitterrand gave a green light for a cover picture in Paris Match showing his beloved daughter with him. Just over a year later, she was at his funeral with her mother, an act of public regal recognition that moved the nation.

Strauss-Kahn, like other avatars of the system, reveled in his own kind of aristocratic and exclusive playground. Silence and immunity became the measure, the flattering reflection of his growing power and nobility.

His demise in France could be seen as the symbolic start of a new era of openness, but we are still in an awkward transition period, where the French public opinion is trying hard to find its mark.

More legal woes for Strauss-Kahn
Defining moments of Strauss-Kahn scandal

Until Nicolas Sarkozy, no president had ever divorced, out of fear it would irritate the shrinking number of Roman Catholics in the electorate, or open a Pandora's Box of distasteful revelations; but sexual morality has never been a reliable electoral criterion.

Rumors on the internet have upstaged uncertain values, fed cynicism and the rise of populist movements, a blanket ideology of the "Tous Pourris" (they are all rotten) at the core of the extreme right-wing psyche.

But in the current confusion, many French would prefer to maintain good old privacy, especially in its male-friendly version. During the Strauss-Kahn epic, for example, women who dared to connect the dots between his character flaws and eligibility for office, saying they would not vote for a misogynist, were often ridiculed as nuns or man-haters.

Most people, in spite of the current publishing frenzy, would rather know less, and keep power on its safe pedestal. That trend started before Strauss-Kahn, when Sarkozy, dumped by his second wife right after his election in 2007, had to become the president next door, and rebuild his life "live" with glamorous Carla Bruni. Ironically, for acting like a mere mortal, be it on prime time, in luxurious and idyllic conditions, he was accused of desecrating the presidency : Too visible, too "bling bling," too out of touch.

His successor, François Hollande, won as "Mr Normal." But his life is far from uneventful. His separation with his companion Segolène Royal, a prominent socialist, a former presidential candidate and mother of his four children, totally disturbed their party in 2007.

His flame ever since, now the First Lady, named Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist, is still so consumed by jealousy that she tweeted her support for Segolène's political opponent during the last parliamentary elections. Her move, a cyber-age rendition of 18th century boudoir warfare, openly contributed to the defeat of her nemesis, ruining her chances to become the President of the Assemblée Nationale. The truth is out now, but it is not certain the French like it that way.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Coste.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT