Tuesday, January 21, 2014

All the President’s Women: The Public and Private Lives of Politicians

Political sex scandals are always irresistibly intriguing for exposing the profound darkness and secrecy hidden behind politely smiling professional faces. ABC has been successfully monetizing such fascination with Scandal, inspired by D.C. insider Judy Smith, who represented Monica Lewinsky during the Clinton-era scandal: its Season 3 premier had over 10 million viewers. Therefore, when French President François Hollande and his – not two, as everyone knew, but three – women, appeared on the scene, he also had vastly more than 10 million people watching.

A sex scandal is the last thing Hollande needs since he became the most unpopular French president on record in October 2013, with only a 26% approval rating. He’d lived unmarried with his partner Ségolène Royal, a fellow ambitious Socialist politician, for over 30 years. In June 2005, after Royal’s defeat in the French presidential election, the couple announced their separation. A few months later, a French website exposed details of Hollande’s long affair with journalist Valérie Trierweiler, who confirmed the relationship. In 2012, when Hollande won that year’s presidential election and moved into the Élysée Palace (the official residence of the French President), Trierweiler came along as the “First Girlfriend” and accompanied him to official events.

On January 10, 2014, the tabloid Closer exposed another scandal: the middle-aged French leader photographed riding a scooter with his bodyguard to meet with his gorgeous and supposed paramour, film actress and producer Julie Gayet. The dramatic twist is that Trierweiler was hospitalized several hours after she heard the shocking allegation. When Hollande visited her in the hospital, he neither confirmed nor denied the reports of his affair: his belief was that his personal life should not be scrutinized or judged.

Front cover of Closer magazine

“The secret love of the president”, Closer

The nebulous correlation between personal moral standards and political acumen got me thinking. Mao Zedong had three wives, with rumors of many other women on the side; yet, his accomplishments and contributions to China are not overshadowed at all – his personal life seemed negligible. Even if Mao abandoned his second wife He Zizhen (who accompanied him during the most arduous period of civil war, including the Long March) immediately after victory and married the elegant actress Jiang Qing, his marital status was never a focus of public discussion as Hollande’s is in France.

Compared to China’s strict censorship, which made Mao’s personal life beyond reproach, the French way of elevating such infidelities to an element of romantic style is more transparent. The national spirit to protect a politician’s privacy – think of Mitterrand and his second family – becomes the current politician’s excuse to hide every dirty, little secret, even when the leader of the country is supposed to be trustworthy and responsible.


Royal, Gayet, and Trierweiler

The way of crisis management and the consequences of such sex scandals hugely depend on the cultural background and values of the state. China has never had a “bachelor” leader due to influential and long-standing family values: the family is the fundamental unit of national stability and harmony. France, though, has a longer history of cohabitation and reputation of extramarital/sexual freedom. Despite being an unwed man with four children and a girlfriend acquired under nontraditional circumstances, Hollande was nevertheless elected; as well, his approval rating rose after the news of affair, especially among women. But really, the French has more on their plate than their President’s personal life – like the sluggish economy.

Former President Clinton’s statement, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, infuriated many simply because this sworn testimony was perjurious. For me, I believe that when one is telling the truth or what one truly believes in, how the general public understands him or her is no longer his or her fault.

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