Sarkozy, his friends, the press and privacy

When the new interactive web site Rue89 broke the story that President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia did not vote in the second round of Presidential elections, the story was not that the woman did not back her husband.  For Rue89, like most of the French press, the story was the news was censored in the Journal du Dimanche (JDD) by its wealthy owner, a close friend of the President. JDD said they did not run the article “because it concerned Cecilia’s private life”.  But Rue89 says the article was planned for the May 6 edition and was canned at 8 p.m. the night before after the paper’s owner, Arnaud Lagardère, called and told them not to run it. 

In August another Lagadère publication, Paris Match, vacation photos of the President in shorts without a shirt were doctored, taking off clumps of fat around the waist. (Sarkozy, by the way, stayed in a house owned by a former top director at Microsoft). 

Fears that the President was too close to big money began immediately after his election when another good friend, Vincent Bolloré, a multi billion dollar industrialist and media mogul, flew the family to the Mediterranean on his private Falcon jet to spend a few days on his private luxury yacht, the Paloma.  If you wanted to rent the yacht it only costs 200 thousand dollars a week. 

Another industrial and media giant at the head of a group worth over 22 billion dollars, Martin Bouygues, was a witness at the Sarkozy wedding.  Le Monde points out that “it only took a simple call from Sarkozy to Bouygues to get Laurent Solly, his deputy campaign manager named to a top post at TF1”, France’s most watched TV station owned my Martin. 

Other close friends: Dominique Desseigne, owner of the Barrière Group of hotels and casinos – Sarkozy celebrated his first evening as President at Fouquet’s, a Barrière Group luxury hotel in Paris; Liliane Bettencourt of L’Oréal; the Decaux who run a worldwide publicity company and the list goes on. 

The French are not interested in the fact that as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine he married Cecilia to his friend Jacques Martin (they had two daughters) and then whisked her away for himself; nor that Cecilia separated from Nicolas and, as reported in the press, lived with lover(s) in New York (the Swiss Le Matin, La Libre Belgique and photos in Paris Match) while Nicolas was reportedly seeing a leading journalist at Le Figaro*, a paper owned by another pal, the aviation and military contractor Serge Dassault. Cecilia returned to New York during the presidential campaign and only came back a couple of weeks before the first round vote. The French do not seem to care that Cecilia did not show up for lunch as planned with the Bush family during the Sarkozy New Hampshire holiday. Nor is there a problem about Cecilia’s not voting in the second round for her husband. 

While this may surprise Americans, the French feel public figures have private lives and that those lives are off limits.  François Mitterrand received his illegitimate daughter at the presidential palace every week.  Everybody knew but nobody talked.  It was not a topic.  French law protects public figures from having their activities outside of their office put in the public sphere. There is no Times Doctrine on Absolute Malice, nor the right to know about elected official and public figures; something American politicians from Gary Hart to Larry Craig would appreciate. 

What worries the French press is the control over the media Sarkozy’s rich friends exercise and how this will affect the way Sarkozy is covered in the news.  But the French President is changing the rules.  He is playing on his dynamic image like a pop star to affect public opinion whether it be jogging, rowing or down time with the kids.  He sent his wife, who has no official function, to Libya to negotiate the release of the Bulgarian nurses and then refused that she testify before a parliamentary commission saying she is a private person with no public function. 

The French press wonders how far they can go given the new landscape.   For the moment reporters are still walking on eggs. 

*Interestingly Sarkozy attacked Le Matin for invasion of privacy and won a partial victory.  Truth is no defense in French court,even for public figures. He later gave an interview to the Parisien Libéré in which he spoke of his marriage problems.