Wednesday, May 19, 2010

L'affaire Twitter

I'm posting about L'affaire Twitter but with the volcano re-eruption, the ash about to paralyze world air traffic the 'scandal' has paled and vanished from the French headlines. For now.

But to re-cap this story - When Nicolas Sarkozy, the French leader, and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, hosted a state banquet for Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, at the Elysée Palace recently it was not only Carla’s figure-hugging dress that caught people’s attention.

After dinner, in an unusual departure from custom, the Sarkozys failed to show up for coffee in the drawing room with their guests. Something must have been wrong, one of those present later told a foreign diplomat: they must be having a row.

Spare a thought for “Sarko” and his première dame, a singer and former top model. Ever since they met at a dinner party, and married just over two years ago, the country has been wondering how long it will last. A president known for a roving eye, a willowy beauty renowned as a “man-eater” — to many it seemed destined to end in tears.
The lane with one of Carla's houses.

In the grand old days of Versailles, it would take weeks for gossip to filter through the ramparts to the hungry masses outside. Today the internet is being used like a battering ram against the high palace walls. Blame Twitter.

Rumours flashed around. Carla, according to tweets, was having an affair with Benjamin Biolay, a 37-year-old singer, and had been on holiday with him to Thailand. A jealous Sarkozy had sent a jet to bring her home.

That was not all. Twitterers went on to say that the president was consoling himself in the arms of Chantal Jouanno, his junior ecology minister, a karate champion. By the time the British press got hold of the story last Wednesday, the French first couple were reported to be on the verge of rupture.

Sarkozy was asked about the rumours. He glowered at the offending journalist: “I certainly don’t have time to deal with these wild imaginings, not even half a fraction of a second. I don’t even know why you use your speaking time to put such an idiotic question.”
So how did a few bits of internet gossip make global headlines? And what, if anything other than pure fantasy, is behind all the tweets?

NOBODY in France has reacted with any surprise to the rumours. For one thing, the French expect their leaders to chase women — remember François Mitterrand with his illegitimate daughter? Or Jacques Chirac, known as the “three-minute man” by female staffers in his office?

For another, Carla is famous for having once said: “Monogamy bores me.” Before she met Sarkozy, she accumulated lovers as busily as others collect stamps. Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger, the musicians, and Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman — she had a reputation for gravitating to fame, money and power.

She also likes brains: she has a son with Raphaël Enthoven, a philosopher whom she met while going out with his father.

Then she met Sarkozy. They have both described it as a coup de foudre, or love at first sight. It has certainly seemed that way in the photographs of them, sometimes through a long lens at the beach, holding hands and canoodling.

In an interview last week, Carla, 42, called her relationship with the president a “fairy tale”, marvelling at how lucky she had been to find love, and marry, in her forties.

Did she trust her husband?

“He would never have affairs,” she said, adding, somewhat oddly: “Have you ever seen a picture of him having an affair?”

It is hard to imagine when he would get the time. He micro-manages everything and has spent days criss-crossing the country recently to help candidates from his centre-right party, including Jouanno, win seats in today’s regional elections.

On the other hand, it is all too easy to imagine him dispatching a jet to pick up an errant wife. He did, after all, go to extraordinary lengths to win back Cécilia, his second wife, when she went off with another man before he was president.

He bombarded her with text messages and took a political journalist as his mistress, apparently in the hope of making Cécilia jealous. When she was leaving Paris to return to her lover he followed her to the airport, sirens blaring, in a convoy of interior ministry vehicles.

She did finally come back to him, but her heart was not in it: she did not even bother to vote for him. Three months after the divorce, “Speedy Sarko” was married to Carla. “But for how long?” the country has asked ever since.

THE first discord in their love duet appeared to come earlier this year when Carla was asked what she thought of her husband running for a second term as president in 2012.

“As a wife, one term would be enough for me,” she replied. Inevitably it prompted chatter, accurate or not, about how she had tired of life in the Elysée.

Then Sarkozy surprised everyone by choosing not to inaugurate the annual agricultural fair, an important event on the French political calendar: instead, he flew off to see Carla, who was resting at her family’s villa on the Riviera.

Was Sarkozy losing his taste for politics? Or was it a case of trouble on the domestic front? Or more likely - was he avoiding the farmers who he'd dissed last year and created a furor in the cow booth? He alienated a huge chunk

Several weeks ago reports suggested that the story of the “affairs” had been made up by a young journalist intent on seeing how long it would take to get them into the mainstream press.

However, tweets on the subject began to appear again. One of the earliest said: "Heard in front of the coffee machine: Sarko+Carla=Over! From now on Carla+Biolay=Big Love!"

Some Twitterers treated it all as a joke.

Nevertheless, the tweeting intensified, even if the French mainstream media, which has always recoiled from spelling out anything to do with the private lives of leaders, contented itself with alluding only glancingly to the rumours.

Last Saturday, when Biolay, who writes most of Carla’s songs, won two awards at the French equivalent of the Grammys, a television commentator reported in a “nudge nudge” way for those in the know that the first lady had been the first to congratulate him.

On the same day, Jouanno, 40, won a French karate championship: again, the television commentator tipped a wink to the initiated, saying it was not known if Sarkozy had had the time to congratulate her.

The newspapers ignored it, with the exception of Le Journal du Dimanche, which referred, in a chatty blog on its website, to “rumours”.

The silence of the other newspapers was not surprising. “It’s a cultural thing,” said Gilles Delafon, a political commentator. “We inherited it from the monarchy. The kings were always having affairs, and their mistresses participated in political life. But people did not comment on it because of deference to the monarchy. It’s still a lot like that today.”

Stories that previously might never have appeared in the press, out of reverence for power, are now emerging into the mainstream after turning up first on the internet, as happened when Cécilia failed to turn up to vote for her husband.

Yet there still has to be some political dimension to stories about the private sphere, said Delafon, for a French editor to go into print. “If Sarkozy is seen crying, then it is a matter of legitimate interest, because if he is upset it could affect his performance in office,” he said. “If Carla is having an affair, though, the response is still: so what?”

This reflects the fact adultery is as much a national pastime in France as boules, and nobody would begrudge the first lady her cinq à sept, the euphemism for a romantic liaison on the way home from work.

Another reason for the French media silence, however, is that the rumours are simply not true, says Guy Birenbaum, another prominent political commentator.

Cara - Tuesday (in Peterborough UK and looking forward to meeting fellow blogmates this Crimefest weekend at Bristol)


  1. Oooh, scandalous! We Americans are not so forgiving. An affair? Impeach! Using public planes for private reasons? Impeach! I love the joie d'vivre with which the French approach life...though I suppose that sentence didn't make sense. But, I don't speak French. :(

    Have a great Crimefest! Sounds fun!


  2. From Paris to Peterborough Cara....the shared first letter is where the similarity ends.

    The press over here are smitten with this. They have been smitten with Carla ever since she and Sarko became embroiled. All this stuff is par for the course in France it appears. The best thing is that people just shrug their shoulders and say, 'Whatever.' They appear to judge their public figures on how good they are at their job and not how good they are on the job, so to speak. A much healthier and grown-up attitude than the juvenile snickering that epitomises the British tabloid approach to sex and scandal.

  3. >took a … mistress, apparently in the hope of making (her) jealous…

    I've never found that works out well… long term. Hmm.

    Apparently during the Obama visit, Madame Sarkozy disconcerted Michelle Obama by enquiring how good her husband was sexually. I don't think that works too well, either.