The revelation that French President François Hollande has taken an interest in actress Julie Gayet that goes beyond the cinematographicand that he does not always take his morning croissants with his official partner, Valérie Trierweiler, at the Elisée Palacehas reopened the discussion about heads of governments private lives.
There are two paradigms in advanced liberal democracies. The American paradigm, influenced by Puritanism, drastically limits a politicians private life. The French paradigm, based on secular republican values, severely limits the publics intrusion. Observers have pointed to the difference between Hollandes dignified refusal to discuss the issue and the customary image of U.S. politicians flogging themselves on TV, their humiliated spouses vouching silently next to them for their contrition.
In the West, church and state became entangled after Constantine converted in the 4th century. It took a thousand years for the separation between church and state to impregnate the public conversation and much longer for it to become real. However, the idea that some people should impose their sense of morality on others never disappeared. As the libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz once wrote, we live off the meaning others give their lives, validating our humanity by invalidating theirs.
French culture and law protect private life regardless of a persons notoriety. There is a long list of historical figures who declared war on monogamy, from Louis XV, who elevated Madame Pompidour to mythical status, to every president since the 1960s. When it was judged, in the 1970s, that people were starting to become a little too nosy, the civil code was amended to protect peoples intimacy further. Which is why the rich and famous (and politicians) have won lawsuits against the few publications that dared expose them.
It is not easy to establish a copper-bottomed rule about the public right to know and a presidents right to privacy. In this case, it is legitimate to ask if it makes sense for taxpayers to continue to pay 20,000 euros per month to sustain the office run by the presidents official partner and whether his security is being compromised. (The pictures reveal that he uses a motorbike and one bodyguard for his clandestine adventures.)
That said, there are symptoms that the protection of privacy is gradually giving ground in France. One indication is how lightly judges have enforced the law in recent years, dishing out very mild fines, usually a few thousand euros that represent a tiny percentage of the money generated by the information. Another indication is that, in the case of royal families, judges are now taking into account whether the conduct revealed by the press affects the succession.
More significantly, the information age has made it impossible to fully enforce the law. How do you fine everyone who retweets pictures once they hit the ether? How do you prevent foreign online publications from posting them and French readers with access to the Internet from seeing them?
And there is something else. It has been disclosed that the French secret services have collaborated with the NSA since 2010 in widely snooping on French citizens. The National Assembly has just approved a Military Programming Law whose article 13 allows the government to collect physical material and information from telecommunications and Internet-service providers on virtually anyone. Although it is being contested, it underscores how inconsistent the state has become regarding the right to privacy.
So, what is the right thing to do? A combination of two things. One, continuing to maintain the healthy disregard for the private lives of others that French society has exhibited for a long time. Two, ensuring the government interferes as little as possible, if at all, with the right to publish information regarding the private lives of public figures when what they do affects the peoples relationship with the person who has so much power over themas long as it does not hurt the liberty or property of third parties. Let the public be the judge of whether the information is relevant or not.
Globalization makes cultural paradigms permeable to outside influencewhich is why we have seen a certain Americanization of journalistic intrusion into the private matters of public figures in recent years. President Sarkozy himself obliged by giving his relationship with Carla Bruni a Hollywoodesque treatment.
It is not inconceivable that foreign habits will also eventually help reshape attitudes in the United States, making society more tolerant of politicians indiscretions. We have already seen a greater tolerance of conducts once judged to be deviant, from same-sex marriage to smoking marijuana.
|Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His Independent Institute books include Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization, and America, Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.|