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On Love, Politics and the Francophone Culture

Julie Gayet at Deauville film festival  via wikipedia  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

Julie Gayet at the Deauville Film Festival via Wikipedia Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0

The global community is now well aware of the tumultuous love life of French President François Hollande. Hollande's affair with French actress Julie Gayet and the ensuing illness of his current partner and still-considered French First Lady Valérie Trierweiler have made the cover of newspapers worldwide over the past week. Hollande is also a father of four with former partner Ségolène Royal, a politician who came in second during the 2007 presidential elections in France.

So his love life is a tad complicated, but he is hardly the first French president to have an unorthodox family structure (François Mitterand and Felix Faure come to mind). By most accounts, French voters do not factor in the private lives of their politicians when it comes down to the ballot. In fact, a survey by the Pew Research Center suggested that French voters may be more lenient towards infidelity than others:

Just 47% of the French say it is morally unacceptable for married people to have an affair, the lowest percentage among 39 nations surveyed in 2013 by the Pew Research Center. In fact, France was the only country where less than 50% of respondents described infidelity as unacceptable. Instead, four-in-ten think it is not a moral issue, while 12% say it is actually morally acceptable.

The French perspective on infidelity and politics has often puzzled many of its English-speaking neighbors. Adam Gopnik in the United Kingdom articulated the cultural dissonance between the two cultures that sprung from the Hollande's affair going public: 

France is not a puritanical society – it accepts that human appetites for sex and food are normal, or “normale”, to use a word much prized there, and that attempts to suppress either, will make men and women nervous wrecks at least [...] 

Puritans are the least buttoned-up people in the world. They can't wait to pin a scarlet A for adultery on someone's clothing, or hold a public humiliation ritual. Nothing could be more illustrative of this than the tone of outraged indignation directed by British tabloid journalists at their reluctant French press equivalents in the past week. 

A few readers disagreed with Gopnik's take. “Sean in Belgium” argued that one needs only to look at the recent mass protests in favor of family values and the ban on prostitution in France to see that the theory does not compute:

It is a caricature of the complexities of French attitudes simply to say that desire is accepted. This, after all, is the country that has just banned prostitution.   

Love and privacy in other French-speaking countries

Given the cultural impact that France has had on the countries within its former empire, one cannot help but wonder: Do the relaxed views on the issue extend to France's former colonies?

At first glance, it would seem that the French laissez-faire attitude did not extend to other Francophone countries. The aforementioned survey by the Pew Research Center noted that a large majority of polled citizens in Senegal, Lebanon, Tunisia and Canada viewed extramarital affairs as morally unacceptable. In Côte d'Ivoire, citizens are often puzzled by France's choice when it comes to matters of love and relationship.

Elsewhere, reactions were more diverse. In Morocco, prominent author Tahar Ben Jelloun empathized with the privacy that public figures ask for when it comes to their love life. Here is his open letter to Hollande's partner Valérie Treilweiler [fr]: 

Je pense à vous en ce moment où votre vie intime, la vôtre et celle de votre compagnon, est sujet de curiosité malsaine, une espèce de cambriolage en plein jour où l'on saccage tout sans penser aux conséquences non seulement sur votre existence, mais aussi celle de vos enfants.[..] Je pense à vous parce que je sais la douleur et la violence, je sais aussi l'attente et l'espoir. Une histoire d'amour est née entre vous et celui qui allait devenir président. Les gens sont durs et s'imaginent que la vie de ceux et celles qui sont sous les lumières de l'actualité ne mérite que des claques. [..] À présent, il vous faudra choisir : continuer à vivre à côté d'un homme qui est ce qu'il est et qui ne changera pas, ou bien tourner cette page douloureuse et trouver votre place

These days I think of you a lot, now that your intimate life, yours and your companion's is being subjected to morbid curiosity, a kind of robbery in broad daylight where your life is being destroyed without a thought for the consequences to not only your life, but that of your children. [...] I think of you because I know that suffering and that violence, as I also know the expectation and hope [of love]. A love story was born between you and the man who would become president. People are cruel and they think that the life of those who are in the spotlight of the news cycle only deserves punishment [...] Now you must make a decision to either continue to live next to a man who is who he is and will not change, or turn this painful page and find your own place. 

In other former colonies, citizens are not shy about discussing matters of the heart. In fact, some seem to relish the use of the word “love”. In Madagascar, former transitional President Andry Rajoelina changed the motto of the country to include the word: “Fitiavana, Tanindrazana, Fandrosoana” (Love, Homeland, Progress). The former First Lady Mialy Rajoelina is in charge of an Association called FITIA (Love), a charity that helps the education of disenfranchised children. 

Her emphasis on sharing compassion seems to have resonated with many Malagasy people, as shown by Twitter user @tagnam:

Who has not signed the petition to keep #MialyRajoelina as the first lady yet ?

In Cameroon, the 237 Online community blog reflected on the rights to privacy for their public figures. Maximilien Ombé wondered how such an affair would be covered [fr]:

On se demande si c'est possible qu'au Cameroun les médias aient le droit de publier des informations relatives aux loves stories des hommes publics notamment du Chef de l'Etat Paul Biya.

One wonders whether Cameroon media would have the right to publish information on public figures’ loves stories such as Head of State Paul Biya.

Dieudonné Mveng added [fr]:

Dès lors qu'on est politique qu'on est une personnalité on est la boussole de la société. La population prend exemple sur nous. C'est aux personnes publiques de bien se tenir.

As soon as a person goes into politics and becomes a public figure, they by default becomes a moral compass for society. The general population takes its cue from them. It is therefore a responsibility of public figures to behave as role model. 

Ampère Simo concluded [fr]:

La règle qui doit guider les médias et les professionnels de l'information dans le traitement des affaires touchant à la vie privée des individus consiste à ne révéler que ce qui est d'intérêt public.  

The rule that should guide the media and any news writers in the treatment of cases involving the privacy of individuals is to only reveal what is relevant to the public interest. 

It seems that while Francophone countries have not embraced the laid back attitude of France towards the love lives of their elite, they are also more willing to move past affairs and love stories to focus on the more pressing public issues.

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