The Private Side of French Politics

The marriage of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and singer-model Carla Bruni on Saturday, February 2nd, in an informal civil ceremony at the Palais de l’Élysée has caused a flurry of controversy and media attention. Half way down the website of Le Figaro, one of France’s leading papers, one finds a headline announcing President Sarkozy’s marriage. The principal concern? The financial assets of both parties. Another article asks: “Does the lack of wedding photos bother you?” while another comments on the style of Carla Bruni’s wedding dress.

The French president has definitely already set records with regard to his personal life since taking office in May 2007. He became the first president to divorce his wife Cécilia while in office, and now, a few months later, has become perhaps the first head of state to wed in office since Napoléon III. While this kind of whirlwind courtship would be unimaginable even in America, it is somewhat surprising how much the French people and press have taken interest in, and sometimes offense at, their president’s private life.

Following his marriage, a survey done by LH2-Libération before and after the event recorded a 13% drop in popularity, according to Le Figaro. The primary reasons, in fact, are with his economic promises; 84% are dissatisfied with his performance with regard to their declining purchasing power, 75% are worried about economic growth, and the problem of employment bothers 68% of the French people polled. Yet, while the drop in approval ratings is not completely caused by his personal life, it nevertheless ranks in second place, with 76% of those polled dissatisfied with the display of his private affairs.

Carla Bruni, perhaps, does not meet some unwritten standards for a French First Lady. In her salad days, she had been known to date the likes of Eric Clapton, and Mick Jagger. More scandalous, though, was her relationship with the son of a philosophy professor with whom she had previously been having an affair. However, Bruni does come from a well-connected, wealthy Italian family, is highly educated, and is an accomplished musician with several of her own albums, a resumé not completely unfitting for a first lady. In addition, Sarkozy’s previous wife, Cécilia, was hardly an ideal supporter to the President. After leaving him to have an affair for a year in 2005, she returned to campaign with him, but conspicuously missed the victory party and declined to accompany him to a lunch with George and Laura Bush while on holiday in New Hampshire.

Traditionally, however, the French media and people have been largely able to separate their judgments of their government representatives’ political actions and their personal lives. Take, for example, the treatment of former president François Mitterand’s illegitimate daughter, Mazarine Pingeot. Most of the political elite had known about her existence, but kept it hidden from the press until two years before Mitterand passed away. Even Jacques Chirac’s several mistresses did not faze the French public; it was his political performance that most directly affected his popularity. Now, with Sarkozy’s choice of a bride in model-musician Carla Bruni, it seems that the French people have finally begun to associate their president’s private life with his performance as a president, evidenced by his approval ratings.

The attention to Sarkozy’s private life is somewhat unprecedented for the French media, and could in a way reflect an Americanization of their press. This has not gone unnoticed, as articles on French newspapers mourn the “peoplisation” of their politicians. Since the French revolution, the national pride of “laïcité,” of a culture of a secular state completely devoid of personal idiosyncrasies, where each citizen was equal before the state, has been challenged several times. Whether it is a question of Muslim girls being allowed to wear headscarves to school or the personal lives of their politicians being equated with their performance, the value of a secular citizenry and the exclusivity of the public domain has been a value much emphasized in France. Perhaps, one could say, we are witnessing the erosion of this importance, as French voters begin to condemn their president for his ostentatious display of his private life. And yet, it seems hypocritical of Americans, for whom family life is a critical issue (consider its impact on the Giuliani campaign), to criticize the French, whose President’s love life is still only secondary to their concerns about their economy – a concern which many would say should be of greater importance to the informed voter.

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