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Sunday 17 February 2013

A stiff upper lip helps one to appreciate French farce

Privacy laws have allowed gallic politicians to get away with some pretty astonishing stuff, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Of all the cultural chasms that still loom between the Irish and the English, that concerning the French is still one of the most unbridgeable. In our folk memory, the French were freedom lovers who from time to time would try to help us in our great struggle. We didn't face the simple truth that France's only interest in us was because we offered a back door to England. (See also, Spain and Germany.)

In England, France is simultaneously a joke and a refuge, a country that has to be slapped down from time to time to remind it who's boss (Wellington seeing off Napoleon at Waterloo – and yes, yes, I know he was Irish but he's an English hero) or rescued from time to time from the German playground bully.

The English are unbothered about the successful invasion of 1066 that placed a Norman king on the throne. What they do feel is that the French are an ungrateful bunch that can be relied on only to stab their friends in the back, but that their country is a pleasant place for a second home because of the climate, food and wine, and that despising them is a harmless national pastime.

It is in the English spirit that I follow French politics. I survey the ordure that is heaped on relatively non-corrupt Westminster politicians and gaze with astonishment at what their French counterparts have got away with because of the privacy laws.

For heaven's sake, President Mitterrand was, for most of his life, able to keep secret that he was maintaining a mistress and illegitimate daughter on public property.

But the internet does not keep secrets, and when Nicholas Sarkozy (right-of-centre) was president, the French press (very metropolitan-elite left-of-centre) woke up and smelled the cafe, and all bad people were able to enjoy the stories of his third wife, Carla Bruni, and her colourful romantic career. (For all of you who worry about invasions of privacy, might I mention that in earlier times Dominique Strauss-Kahn's atrocious sexual behaviour would have been a secret and he would now be president. He might, of course, be a better president than what the French have now, but that's a separate issue which should worry us all.)

The French threw Sarkozy out because a) they didn't like such reforms as raising the pension age to 62 and b) they didn't like the bling and the embarrassment of his love life. So they elected Francois Hollande, a dull socialist.

Well, like Mitterrand and other French socialists before him, Hollande did his socialist bit (reversing reforms) and then did a U-turn, as he realised that otherwise France would go bankrupt, and began giving tax breaks to businesses. In the past few days he's been on a state visit to India selling fighter jets. His left-wing gesture of squeezing the pips of the rich has resulted in such embarrassments as the country's richest man moving to Belgium and Gerard Depardieu becoming a Russian citizen.

And the private life? Wow!

The story so far: in 2007, when he was first secretary of the Socialist Party, Hollande's partner, Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children, defeated him for the party nomination to run for president. When she lost to Sarkozy, many blamed Hollande for a lacklustre campaign. It was then disclosed that he was having an affair with Paris Match political journalist Valerie Trierweiler (apparently almost all French politicians and political journalists share beds), but, because of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, he got the nomination. When he was elected, Trierweiler's obsessive jealousy of Royal was revealed in a tweet supporting Royal's opponent in the elections to the National Assembly. Open season on Trierweiler followed.

Accused in one biography of being simultaneously married to a political journalist and having affairs with Hollande and his opposite number in a right-wing party, she is suing for damages for invasion of privacy. One theory is that she complements Hollande because "she embodies a certain kind of freedom and transgression that he doesn't allow himself. He is discreet and introverted. She is explosive."

Then came India, which had refused to allow Sarkozy to bring Carla Bruni as a partner. Trierweiler clearly played merry hell at the news that she couldn't accompany Hollande on a state visit and India backed down. But what's happened to her? Once she said: "I am discovering what is expected of the first lady. She kisses sick children and looks after the dinner menus. And that revolts me."

And what's she done in India? She's visited a French-run children's home in Delhi and explained that she was now focusing on children's rights and the promotion of education. I could almost feel sorry for her.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards