Gossip v privacy for the powerful in France
- 5 June 2011
- From the section Europe
Three weeks after the charges of sexual assault in a New York hotel, repercussions from the Strauss-Kahn affair continue to reverberate across France - as a row over new allegations against an unnamed political figure shows.
The opposition Socialist party is still assessing the damage to its presidential prospects following the humiliation of its one-time champion, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, due back in court on Monday.
Commentators agonise over the embarrassment to France's international reputation, or rail against the supposed iniquities of the American justice system.
But by far the biggest impact has been on the debate over the public's right to know.
Outsiders almost unanimously take the view that the Strauss-Kahn affair is proof of a shameful dereliction of duty on the part of French journalism.
Mr Strauss-Kahn's predatory attitude to women was well-known to the Paris media, the argument goes, but went unreported because of a tacit collusion with the political elite.
Here in France, that argument is conceded - but only up to a point.
Most people agree that national newspapers should take a tougher line towards authority - and that the web of interests linking journalists and politicians is harmful to democracy.
But there remains an extremely resilient strand of thought, which resists any move towards an information free-for-all a la Anglo-Saxon.
In the view of the overwhelming majority, the right to privacy is sacrosanct.
And even if the Strauss-Kahn fiasco shows the risks of taking this principle too far, this is preferable to the opposite: a moralising, tabloid culture which (for the French) is the ghastly reality in the UK and the US.
New sex claims
The privacy v public interest debate blew up in extraordinary fashion this week with the impromptu remarks of a former education minister apparently accusing another former minister of indulging in illegal under-age sex.
Luc Ferry, who is also an accomplished writer and media commentator, was trying to make the point that in France - unlike in other countries - there are laws that prevent the reporting of private peccadilloes.
He told a Canal-Plus TV chat show that he had it on good authority that a certain ex-minister had been "caught at an orgy in Morocco with young boys". He did not divulge any names.
The rumour was widely known, he said, but had never been reported because the ex-minister was protected by the law.
The revelations came as another French politician, Georges Tron, resigned from government after being accused of sexually harassing female staff. Mr Tron denied the allegations.
Mr Ferry presumably intended to defend the French system - showing how journalists in France cannot simply shovel gossip into the public arena. Instead, he found himself at the centre of a monumental row, accused of doing exactly that: shovelling out gossip.
Socialist MP Andre Vallini said he was "horrified" by Mr Ferry's remarks, which were "dragging French politics into the gutter". And President Sarkozy's own special advisor Henri Guaino lamented "this detestable atmosphere... it's like the lid has come off and everything is on public display".
Worse, it was pointed out that if Mr Ferry had sure knowledge of this Moroccan orgy, then it was his duty to inform the police.
Sex with under-age boys is illegal, even if the act takes place outside France. By not denouncing the crime, Mr Ferry was himself theoretically in breach of the law.
With events fast slipping out of control, the police opened a preliminary investigation and on Friday called Mr Ferry in for questioning. It remains to be seen if the case goes any further.
As for the identity of the ex-minister who allegedly took part in the orgy, the internet is now awash with rumours.
So Mr Ferry's cack-handed advocacy of French journalistic caution ended up having precisely the opposite effect to the one intended.
What it all shows is how France has yet to work out a new balance of media rights and responsibilities to take account both of the internet, and of the public's more critical attitude towards the political elite.
There is nothing unusual in this. Britain, too, is going through a period of transition, thanks to the tighter interpretation of the right to privacy enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights.
The difference is that while Britain is edging from a position of more press freedom to less, in France it is from less to more.
The contrast between the two reporting cultures is proof of a general truth about Britain and France: that in their systems of thought, behaviour and policy they tend to define themselves by opposition to the other.
Thus defenders of France's restrictive media tradition say better this than British muck-raking.
And defenders of the British model say better ours than Mr Strauss-Kahn.