The French notion of respecting a leader's private life was once sacrosanct. President Francois Hollande wishes it was still that way.
For the first time, unauthorized, "stolen" snapshots of a French president have been published in a magazine. The photos reportedly show President Francois Hollande coming and going from the (until now) secret apartment of his alleged lover ... on a motorcycle.
According to the gossip magazine Closer, Hollande has been spending his nights with 41-year-old French movie star Julie Gayet, commuting incognito under a motorcycle helmet.
The magazine said that an accompanying secret service agent even brought Hollande and Gayet croissants in the morning.
At news conference Tuesday, Hollande acknowledged, "These are painful moments" for him and Valerie Trierweiler, the girlfriend who lives with him at the Elysee Palace. She was hospitalized after the magazine report last week.
But Hollande refused to discuss Gayet or say anything more about his private life.
Meanwhile, France is in an uproar. As daily Le Parisien put it, "a political-sentimental tsunami has hit the country." The chattering class is abuzz over whether politicians have the right to a private life anymore, and whether the French press is becoming like the invasive British and American media.
Leaving Public Officials Alone
Leaving public officials to live as they please in their private realm is a time-honored notion in France just as many Americans believe that a public figure should lead a moral existence both on and off the job.
I worked for a French television news network in Washington in the 1990s, when the French looked on in condescending horror while "puritanical" America pilloried its president for what many French saw as a harmless dalliance with a White House intern.
It was nearly impossible to explain to my French news colleagues why President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky was such a big deal in the U.S.
French leaders have always done as they pleased in their free time. One former president, Jacques Chirac, had bodyguards who escorted him to and from his many trysts. He was known as "Mr. 15 Minutes," shower included.
Then there was President Francois Mitterrand, who during his 1980s presidencies fathered a child out of wedlock and attended to this second family without a word ever leaking out.
It only surfaced when both his wife and mistress – as well as his grown out-of-wedlock daughter – showed up at his funeral.
Gone are the days when a handful of journalists guard such presidential secrets.
"It's neither good nor bad," remarked one politician about the changing norms. "But this is the age of Twitter, and that's just the way it is."
The Promise Of A 'Normal' Presidency
Hollande touted himself as a "normal president" compared to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy – who divorced and remarried on the job.
True, Hollande moved into the Elysee Palace as the first unmarried president.
The French took that in stride. But his "normal" persona began to crack shortly after he took office and Trierweiler, known unofficially as the "First Girlfriend," tweeted in favor of the political opponent of Segolene Royal, Hollande's former partner of 22 years. Hollande and Royal were never married, though they did have four children together.
As it turns out, Trierweiler and Royal can't stand each other. (Let's not include the newest alleged girlfriend for the sake of simplicity). Trierweiler, who is often referred to as "Rottweiler," is perceived as a jealous, controlling woman.
It all makes for great comic fodder. There's a popular TV comedy show with marionettes called "Les Guignols" that depicts a wimpy president Hollande caught between the two domineering women.
No one seemed to suspect that France's mild-mannered president was up to all this. After all, his nickname is "flanby," after they wobbly dessert.
Hollande has not denied the magazine story, but expressed "total indignation" at the decision to publish the story.
So far, Hollande's ratings don't seem to have suffered much. Of course, as the most unpopular French president since World War II, it's hard to sink much lower.
Some are even wondering if the incident might burnish the president's image.
A Sign Of Changing Times
There have been signs that French attitudes have been changing, and some point to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair in 2011.
Strauss-Kahn, the Frenchman who headed the International Monetary Fund, was accused of sexually assaulting a maid at a New York City hotel. He resigned his post, though the the charges were eventually dropped. But the judicial drama released a pent-up fury in France, especially among French women.
Strauss-Kahn had a long reputation as a rampant womanizer, and French women rose up and said they would no longer tolerate the bad behavior of powerful men. The French media agonized over whether it had ignored Strauss-Khan's escapades for too long.
The French are not comparing the mild-mannered, genteel Hollande to Strauss Kahn. But one irony is that Hollande may be president because of the 2011 controversy surrounding Strauss-Kahn.
He was considered a heavy favorite for the presidency, but did not run because of the controversy. Hollande was considered the fallback candidate.
But perhaps Hollande should have noticed that attitudes were changing when it came to reporting on private lives. As one pundit put it: "Hollande's a normal president alright. He's being treated just like everyone else."