'Respect' of private life of public figures that keeps affairs out of news described as 'a figleaf for journalistic cowardice' as commentator declares ' Dominique Strauss-Kahn wouldn't have lasted five minutes in Britain, America or Sweden.'
After Strauss-Kahn, 'code of silence' may no longer protect French politicians
One lasting effect of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair may be to weaken France's rigid attachment to privacy for public figures, a principle at times ridiculed abroad but cherished in France, French commentators believe.
Mr Strauss-Kahn's resignation as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) dominated headlines yesterday, leaving French media to debate their role in overlooking what seems to have been common knowledge about his serial womanising.
The torrent of news coverage and analysis after the arrest this week of Mr Strauss-Kahn, usually known as DSK, for an alleged sex attack on a chambermaid in an upmarket New York hotel, has devoted much focus to the "omerta" - or code of silence - that has traditionally protected the famous and powerful in France from unwelcome exposure.
Within hours of news of DSK's arrest last weekend, the far-right Front National leader, Marine Le Pen, was claiming that rumours about his "pathological" treatment of women had been buzzing around political and media circles in Paris for months.
She said she had also been on the receiving end of "inappropriate" verbal attention from her socialist rival for the presidency.
Since then, several writers and politicians have confirmed that they, too, knew of excesses in Mr Strauss-Kahn's private life. One young woman, Tristane Banon, has claimed he molested her nine years ago.
Ivan Rioufol wrote on the website of the newspaper Le Figaro: "Everyone knew, everyone was silent. The French omerta on the hidden personality of Dominique Strauss-Kahn cannot be justified solely on grounds of respect for privacy. I am strongly for the protection of intimacy and detest the voyeuristic hounding of people by the tabloid press.
"But the personality of a public figure with the highest political ambitions is a factor that should be analysed by commentators. And in this case, we must note the lack of media scrutiny (I include myself) in the face of all that was known in Paris for years, of his possibly addictive behaviour."
One Parisian journalist, Jean Quatremer, was allowed to use his blog at the Libération newspaper, but not the paper itself, to warn that Mr Strauss-Kahn's relations with women could compromise his IMF role.
He believes the astonishing events of recent days could prove a turning point. "DSK is an affair too many," he told The Daily Telegraph of London. "The so-called respect of private life is a figleaf for journalistic cowardice. We are scared of falling out with politicians as they are our sources, but they need us … Dominique Strauss-Kahn wouldn't have lasted five minutes in Britain, America or Sweden."
In a long discussion on France 3 television on Wednesday night, a number of senior journalists insisted their hands had been tied by France's strict laws protecting the right to privacy.
Several personalities have brought successful legal actions against sections of the media, leading to heavy financial penalties and court orders requiring the prominent publication of court condemnations. The fact that an offending report may be shown to have been true, or even subsequently confirmed publicly by the complainant, does not affect the process.
But legal inhibitions tell only part of the story. France may have prided itself on having a press that was more decent, if also a lot duller, than British or American equivalents.
It was well known within the French media for years that the socialist president François Mitterrand was living a double life, with a mistress and daughter as well as his conventional family. Jacques Chirac was widely known to have had a string of extramarital liaisons.
Mr Mitterrand's open secret was maintained until shortly before his presidency ended while Mr Chirac's affairs remained unpublicised until his wife chose to talk publicly about them.
A discussion of the subject at the website of the free newspaper 20 minutes included mention of the "adage that while an American investigative journalist dreams of bringing down a politician, the French journalists prefers to be invited to his table".
One participant in the France 3 programme, Christophe Deloire, said he was amazed that the press failed to follow up disclosures about DSK's pursuit of women, published in his 2006 book Sexus Politicus.
In an article for the newspaper Le Monde, he wrote: "The scenes recounted were not limited to simple salon seduction. This chapter brought our editor and ourselves under intense pressure given the sensitive nature of the information."
Times were already changing before the DSK arrest. The internet age has helped make French investigative journalism more aggressive, and a new film about the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, breaks new ground in presenting a warts-and-all portrayal of a serving head of state.
However, the clamour for greater transparency is not supported by all. There remains stiff resistance to moves towards what many French deride as "Anglo-Saxon" ways.
François Dufour, who represents the French press at the World Association of Newspapers and attended the DSK hearing in New York on Monday, has mixed views.
Mr Dufour, who publishes a successful series of newspapers for children, said yesterday the principle of respect for privacy was fundamental to good journalism.
"In the case of DSK, why did people who had knowledge or claimed to be his victims not report what they knew to the police? It is not the journalist's role. With Mitterrand, it was different because taxpayer funds were used to protect him," he said yesterday.
"I do not know whether this affair will lead to a weakening of the principle and I know that others disagree with me, but I hope it does not."