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Does Hollande's scandal mark the end of France's cultural difference?
LISBON, Portugal — The French can be snooty about overhyped Hollywood plots, but even Tinseltown would be stretched to conjure up a script as sensational as the real-life political thriller starring — if Parisian news reports are true — President Francois Hollande.
The story so far has the country's most powerful man allegedly engaged in a secret affair with a beautiful actress known for roles in TV shows and movies such as "First Kisses," "Chaos and Desire," and "The Art of Seduction."
A celebrity magazine exposed the affair to the public on Friday when a man in black — supposedly the president, although his face is covered by the visor of a motorcycle helmet — was snapped emerging from an apartment where he reportedly regularly overnights with actress Julie Gayet.
With the media abuzz with revelations of presidential infidelity, first lady Valerie Trierweiler was whisked to the hospital last weekend suffering from what her spokeswoman called "a great emotional shock."
Hollande "deeply regretted the lack of respect for private life" shown by the magazine Closer, but pointedly did not deny its report.
On Tuesday, he dodged a question about whether Trierweiler is still first lady during a news conference. He said only that private matters must be dealt with privately and respectfully.
Hollande acknowledged experiencing a difficult period in his private life, and said he would answer about Trierweiler's status before a planned trip to Washington next month.
— ITV News (@itvnews) January 14, 2014
Adding to the president's discomfort, questions have also been raised about the ownership of the apartment apparently used as the presidential love nest, with dark suggestions of a link to the organized crime milieu on the Mediterranean island of Corsica.
Hollande's private life exploded into view just as the embattled president was preparing to deliver a news conference Tuesday designed to breathe life into his deeply unpopular administration.
Blamed for France's sorry economic state, the Socialist leader has seen his popularity sink to record lows of around 20 percent since he was elected less than two years ago.
"The affair has emerged at the worst possible moment for President Hollande," journalist David Revault d'Allonnes wrote Monday in an editorial for the daily Le Monde. "On the eve of a press conference conceived as a relaunch after an apocalyptic year... the head of state will find himself obliged to justify his private life."
That isn't supposed to happen in France.
Traditionally, media and public have been circumspect about the private lives of their leaders. But in the age of social media and growing influence of British- and American-inspired scandal sheets, French politicians increasingly risk finding their peccadilloes exposed.
"These days, the sensibility of the French public has become close to that of the Anglo-Saxons," sociologist Jean-Marie Charon told the magazine Telerama. "It looks a little like the end of France's cultural difference in the press."
The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal has also influenced the French media's approach to politicians’ private lives.
The allegations of sexual assault filed against the former International Monetary Fund director in New York and subsequent claims of his involvement in prostitution rings led to much soul-searching about the blind eye the media had turned to widely circulating rumors about his hyperactive sex life.
There’s also a growing perception that if politicians use their private lives to boost their images, they shouldn’t complain if the press turns its attention to uncovering more piquant details.
Closer’s editor Laurence Pieau justified her decision to publish the Gayet revelations by citing Hollande's much-quoted election campaign assertion that he is a "normal guy."
"This is a president who’s heartstruck, who has a story," she told Europe 1 radio, adding that the story showed Hollande was a "normal president, a normal person."
A normal French president he may be.
Gossip about the love lives of his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and Francois Mitterrand was rife among French political journalists during their terms in office, even if they rarely put them in print.
Revelations in 1984 that Mitterrand had fathered a daughter outside his marriage were a rare exception that did little harm to the president's popularity.
Hollande may eventually also be able to shrug off his scandal.
The French have no problem with the fact that he never married Trierweiler or his previous companion, Segolene Royal. She's the mother of his four children and a leading politician herself whom Hollande defeated — after their breakup — in primaries for the Socialist Party's presidential candidate.
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A Corsican mob connection to the apartment where Hollande met with Gayet — which could have been damaging to the president — may be more tenuous than first suggested by some sensational reports.
According to Le Monde, the only link is that the pied-a-terre in Paris' chic 17th district was rented by an actress friend of Gayet, whose previous boyfriends include an actor convicted in a money-laundering case and another Corsican killed in a suspected gang-related shooting.
For the moment, 84 percent of French voters say Hollande’s alleged affair won’t change their views of him, according to a poll released Monday by the French Institute of Public Opinion. Eighty-nine percent say president has the right to privacy.