Public Figures, Private Lives and the Press in France

Paris — Once again the question of law and an individual’s right to privacy is taking center stage in France where the media hungry President Nicolas Sarkozy and his top model girlfriend are suing Ryanair for using their photo in a print advertisement. 

Unlike the United States, French law (article 9) says “each person has the right to the respect of their private life” even when they are public figures or public officials but Sarkozy’s ‘people’ style media show is challenging past court decisions. 

What is under attack is the European tradition of only paying attention to the job politicians do in their official function and not to how they behave on their own time.  Mitterrand’s romantic escapades and his illegitimate daughter were never in the press.  But Mitterrand never made a public issue of it until towards the end of his life. 

With Sarkozy, the European press is moving closer to the American approach about the kind of models leaders should be and whether what they do in their off time reflects upon the kind of leaders they really are.  The unofficial life is becoming political and many in France now feel the public has a right to know. 

Paris lawyer Christophe Bigot argues that “all the events of a private life made public by a political figure should in principle become events about which investigation and news are legitimate.  This is certainly the case concerning Sarkozy’s affair with Carla Bruni.  They posed for pictures while on vacation in Egypt, Bruni is present at official events and Sarkozy has spoken of his relationship at press conferences. 

The problem is can these politicians control the press so that it operates within their communications strategies while denying the press its right to inform? 

The courts recently have ruled in favor of most politicians and Sarkozy among them.  In 2006 the Swiss paper Le Matin was condemned by a French court for articles concerning Sarkozy’s first separation with his former top-model wife Cecilia who at the time had set up house with Publicity mogul Richard Attias in New York. 

In the same vein, Sarkozy’s good friend Arnaud Lagardère, who owns Paris Match, had the magazine’s director fired for running an article on the Attias – Cecilia subject. Yet Sarkozy gave a long interview about his separations with Cecilia to the Parisien Libéré in late 2006 prior to the official Presidential election campaign last year. 

The French are looking for a way to talk about the private lives of their politicians and Sarkozy’s behavior is opening the door. 

The other question to be asked about the Ryanair publicity is whether the Free Press principle of caricature will be respected.  The bubble over the Sarkozy – Bruni photo says that they will now be able to afford to bring the whole family to their wedding.  Nobody in their right mind believes they really said that. 

For an answer to this question I refer to the US Supreme Court decision after Larry Flint’s Hustler wrote a fake interview in which Christian fundamentalist leader Jerry Fallwell talked about the first time he had sex with his mother in an out-house:

(Taken from wikipedia) In Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the United States Supreme Court held, voting 8-0, that the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for emotional distress intentionally inflicted upon them unless they can show that the statements that gave rise to the distress were false and that the person that made those statements knew they were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth in making the statements. Hustler magazine’s parody of Jerry Falwell did not satisfy this standard, and so the Court reversed a jury verdict in favor of Falwell awarding him $250,000 in damages.

The protection of the private lives for public figures has long been used to protect officials against public scrutiny.  I sincerely hope the repressive press laws voted in France over the past few years will now be challenged.  If this happens, we can thank the French President.