No matter where you were late last week, from Detroit to Doha and all points in between, you could not have escaped the media coverage of the amorous secret life of the president of France, Francois Hollande. Pictures and breathless accounts of the president’s late-night trysts with Julie Gayet, a glamorous film actress, were top of the news everywhere, starting with the French edition of Closer magazine, which had staked out the couple’s love nest.

Yes, it was big news, so big that it pushed Rob Ford off the front page of Saturday’s Toronto Star. That big.

President Hollande, let it be said, is not cut from the same cloth as the sexy leading men with whom Gayet appears in her steamy (if not overly artistic) films. He is middle-aged, balding, bespectacled and a bit pudgy where Gayet is drop-dead gorgeous, thereby confirming the validity of an observation made by the dumpy Henry Kissinger (who knew whereof he spoke) that power is the greatest aphrodisiac of all.

My first thought was, well, this is France after all. In France, it is virtually assumed that men of wealth or power will take a mistress (or two or three) and that their significant others will take a lover (or two or three). Extra-marital adventures merit no more than a Gallic shrug from the public and, traditionally, from the French media, too.

Affairs are nothing new in French presidential history – President Valérie Giscard d’Estaing survived a car crash while returning from a sleepover with a lover. President Jacques Chirac was rumoured to have had as many as 40 mistresses (consecutively, that is); he kept himself so busy that he was privately known as “five minutes, shower included.”

François Mitterrand kept the love child he had with his mistress, Anne Pingeot, secret for most of his two terms as president. President Nicolas Sarkozy dumped his second wife to take up with supermodel Carla Bruni, whom he later wed.

In France, the off-duty behaviour of political leaders is regarded as being less reprehensible than the publicizing of that conduct. Hence, Gayet and Hollande, while not denying their relationship, are proposing, quite separately, to sue French media organizations for invasion of privacy, a crime punishable in France with a very stiff fine and a year in jail.

Protection of privacy is a concern among politicians everywhere. There used to be a “conspiracy of silence” between journalists and politicians in which intimate indiscretions, although gossiped about, were not reported.

Everyone, except the general public, knew about John F. Kennedy’s many dalliances. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s love child with a slave girl and Franklin Roosevelt’s mistress were kept secret, to mention just a couple of examples.

The conspiracy of silence began to break down in the 1960s: with the John Profumo-Christine Keeler scandal in Britain; the Gerda Munsinger-Pierre Sevigny sex and security scandal in Canada; and in the United States with Teddy Kennedy and the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick. These stories were too big, too important to be dismissed with shrug, Gallic or otherwise.

As noted, my first reaction to last week’s revelations from Paris was to think, this is France, after all, and the French have a different, perhaps healthier, attitude to sex than people in other places. My second thought was, this could never happen in Ottawa. Could it?

Can you imagine seven pages in a Canadian magazine devoted to the nocturnal activities of Stephen Harper? First, the pictures show a beautiful woman arriving at an apartment block in, say, Ottawa’s Lower Town. Next an RCMP bodyguard arrives to check out the premises. Then the prime minister arrives on the back of a chauffeur-driven scooter. In the morning, the bodyguard returns with a bag of fresh croissants for the hungry lovers, who then go their separate ways. That’s what happened in Paris.

No, it could never happen in Ottawa – although the capital might be a more interesting place if it could.

Cambridge resident Geoffrey Stevens, an author and former Ottawa columnist and managing editor of the Globe and Mail, teaches political science at Wilfrid Laurier University and the University of Guelph. His column appears weekly in the Waterloo Region Record and Guelph Mercury newspapers. He welcomes comments at [email protected]


Geoff Stevens

Geoffrey Stevens

Geoffrey Stevens is a former Ottawa-based national political columnist for The Globe and Mail, as well as Queen’s Park bureau chief, national editor, sports editor and managing editor for that...