This week in France has seen developments in several news stories which shine a light on some of the complexities of French society today. The Bottom Line series continues, as Jennifer Campbell explores two very different stories, alongside their international reception and wider implications.
THE PRIVATE LIFE of French President Francois Hollande has, unavoidably, been the focus of intense scrutiny in the past week. After rumours circulated about his alleged affair with French actress Julie Gayet, the President’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, was admitted to hospital; and on Saturday 25th January, Hollande confirmed their separation in a press conference. The British media, in predictable ‘Franglish’ fashion, have christened this “Le Split”.
Traditionally, the private lives of politicians in France was seen as ‘off-limits’ and somewhat of an Anglo-Saxon obsession; but some journalists argue that the so-called ‘peopolisation’ of French politics did not occur only with the advent of 24-hour news and Closer magazine. Le Figaro, in light of recent events, provides a run-down of Presidential scandals from De Gaulle to Hollande, suggesting that this apparent ‘French exception’ may have never really existed at all.
French Closer magazine printed the original reports of an affair, once again courting controversy as it did in 2012 by publishing topless photographs of Kate Middleton. The Independent examines France’s growing taste for gossip (willing supplied by “la presse people”) – despite strict privacy laws which mean that magazines like Closer are pursued in the courts on a regular basis.
Le Monde, on the other hand, analyses international press coverage of the scandal, noting that it “continues to make the headlines” in British newspapers, which “express their surprise at French people’s lack of desire to know the secrets of their President’s bedroom”. The authors note the prominence of this story in newspapers across Europe, something that may well surprise many French readers.
Overall, it seems that “L’affaire Hollande-Gayet” has provided an insight into the changing notions of privacy, celebrity, and what constitutes news in France. With Britain currently experiencing a backlash against years of tabloid-led privacy intrusions, it is particularly interesting to see France, a country with very different press and political cultures, beginning to face up to similar issues.
ANOTHER PROMINENT STORY which has been making headlines both in France and elsewhere in the past week is the controversy surrounding French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala (known by his stage name of Dieudonné) and the long-running allegations against him of anti-semitism. This was brought to international attention when Nicholas Anelka, a French footballer playing for English team West Bromwich Albion, celebrated a goal by performing a “quenelle”. This gesture, which some believe looks like an inverted Nazi salute, was created by Dieudonné and is often imitated by his fans, who argue it is an anti-establishment (and not anti-semitic) symbol. The comedian, however, has several convictions for ‘hate speech’: The Guardian reports that he has accumulated fines totalling €65,000 for this.
Dieudonné’s controversial show has been banned by the French authorities, provoking debate over freedom of speech and, as The Guardian reports, leading to a “spike” in his popularity.
In Le Monde, journalist and documentary-maker Michaël Prazan reacts to this debate and discusses the issue from the point of view of French history and society; arguing that Dieudonné is following a tradition of “specifically French anti-Semitism”, which always features some form of “mockery, derision or outrageousness”. While some might defend the freedom of comedians to shock, this writer argues that “the damage inflicted on French society is considerable”, noting the influence on young people as a particular concern.
However, Britain’s Financial Times reports the opinions of some of Dieudonné’s fans, with one student arguing that “Dieudonné’s references to Jews are no worse than the abuse long suffered by his own Muslim community”.
Le Monde also analyses the comedian’s fan base, remarking that it is broad and heterogeneous, including people of various ethnic origins and political persuasions, who come together “to share in the thrilling pleasure of transgressing the ultimate taboo: the Holocaust”. Some of the young fans quoted in the article express their feeling of being taught about the Holocaust too much in school, at the expense of other tragedies of history such as the Rwandan genocide and slavery. One claims that through this, they are “subjected to a mentality of guilt from an early age”.
The recent reappearance of Dieudonné in the headlines brings these complex issues in French society to the fore, and draws attention to France’s laws on holocaust denial (known as the ‘loi Gayssot’) and on hate speech – both of which have given rise to controversial cases in recent years. With several British newspapers claiming that Dieudonné is to visit London, both to lend his support to Nicholas Anelka and to perform a show, the UK may too see similar debates being reignited.