The most disappointing thing about the news that French President Francois Hollande allegedly has been rendezvousing with an actress in the privacy of her apartment is that it's a testament to how pathetic and petty some segments of French society are allowing public discourse to become in a country historically renowned for grand ideas and debate.
You might ask: So the nation that produced scientists such as Pierre and Marie Curie, Louis Pasteur and Jacques Cousteau; artists such as Claude Monet, Charles Baudelaire and MoliÃ¨re; thinkers such as Voltaire and Bastiat; and leaders such as Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon is now fussing over tabloid photos allegedly showing the President of the Republic arriving on a scooter to meet with a woman friend at a flat near the Elysee Palace?
No. Wrong. Thankfully, much of the French public still doesn't care. The media and rival politicians do, and the foreign media does, but a large percentage of the French population has been critical of the media for making this personal matter an item for public discussion.
In the run-up to the president's traditional January press conference this week, the French media speculated about how Hollande would address the alleged affair with French actress Julie Gayet. Really? Far be it from me as a conservative to defend a Socialist president, but the man is busy running military operations in Africa, grappling with post-crisis economic growth and dodging the usual long knives of French politics. Meanwhile, the media spend days breathlessly speculating about how he might handle, in a press conference, the subject of a consensual private relationship between himself and an adult woman? It would have been nice to see Hollande respond with nothing more than a big smile and a thumbs-up. Instead, he said that he would clarify his marital status before his February 11 meeting in Washington with U.S. President Barack Obama. (As if the pettiness could be any better juxtaposed.)
The mainstream French media have been reduced to competing with tabloids and social media for eyeballs. In the "old media" days, newspapers had limited real estate, which meant that when faced with editorial decisions between items related to, say, the French economy and a politician's extramarital affairs, the prurient voyeurism didn't make the cut as actual news. Nowadays, the migration of traditional media to the Internet affords ample space for all sorts of nonsense that doesn't belong outside of coffee klatches. And with the competition for online audience share, one might imagine the kind of iron will required to maintain higher editorial selection standards than the "anything goes" social media cesspool.