French get peek at all the presidents' women

The French taboo on media coverage of the sex lives of politicians lay shattered into a hundred fascinating pieces yesterday. The magazine Marianne, irritated by the priggish French coverage of Bill Clinton's travails, tore open the lace curtains on 40 years of hidden affairs of state. John Lichfield reports.

If France were the United States, it would have lost its last three presidents - Mitterrand, Giscard and Pompidou - to sex scandals. Even the present incumbent, Jacques Chirac, would have had some Clinton-like explaining to do about his pre-presidential, private life.

According to the news magazine Marianne - a serious, but deliberately unconventional publication, not a scandal sheet, President Chirac's extra- marital conquests have included the Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale. Valery Giscard d'Estaing had an affair while president, with, among others, the actress Sylvia Kristel (who made her name in the erotic classic Emmanuelle). Francois Mitterrand's activities were too numerous to list in full but included an affair with the singer Dalida. Georges Pompidou had an illegitimate son.

The magazine says all these facts - and more - were common knowledge at the time but never written about openly in the French press. This was partly from fear of prosecution under French privacy laws (Marianne is deliberately courting this risk). But there is also a long-standing journalistic convention that it is "healthier" and more "adult" to ignore such things.

In France, much scorn has been poured on the American media for its pursuit of the last titillating detail of the Monica Lewinsky affair (although the French press has found it necessary to publish most of the details themselves).

Marianne says that, at heart, it agrees it is often healthier not to dwell on the private lives of public figures. It points out, however, that the traditional attitude of the French press frequently serves politicians better than the public. On several occasions, political-sexual affairs have become entangled with political or financial scandals which have been ignored because of the taboo on the exploration of private lives.

A classic example, the magazine says, is the career of the former foreign minister, Roland Dumas, whose role in kick-backs on state contracts is being investigated by two judges. As part of the investigation, Christine Deviers-Joncour, usually described in the press as an associate of Mr Dumas - actually his mistress - has been arrested on suspicion of receiving pounds 6m in illegal commissions.

Marianne says the silence of the French press has allowed politicians to parade their virtue and attachment to family values, while living energetically immoral private lives. Throughout French history, there are events that have to be explained, romantically or sexually. For instance, Marshall Petain was taken into the French government in 1939 because the mistress of the prime minister, Paul Reynaud, insisted that he should be. Equally, says Marianne, there are many events in contemporary public life which can only be explained by opening the bedroom door.

The magazine gives a brief six-page survey of the liaisons not-previously dangereuses which have enlivened the secret history of the Fifth Republic since 1958. President Charles de Gaulle was irreproachable (though possibly not during the war). At the instigation of his wife, anyone known to be an adulterer was excluded from his governments. (De Gaulle, personally, took a more relaxed view. Meeting an ambassador recalled from Moscow after an affair with a KGB stooge, the general simply said: "So, you've been in bed.")

Pompidou's activities were legendary but limited by ill-health while in the Elysee Palace. Giscard d'Estaing was rumoured to have many mistresses but this was probably exaggerated, Marianne says. He did, however, have a taste for young actresses who were approached by one of his officials and entertained at a country inn called Le Petit Coq aux Champ (the little cock in the fields). Mitterrand's long-standing affairs, and his illegitimate daughter, Maserine, WERE revealed toward the end of his life (to general indignation and fascination). But Marianne says that this was only a taste of the general atmosphere of "liberated morals", often linked with financial chicanery, which surrounded the Elysee under Mitterrand. Relative probity has been restored under Mr Chirac, but the magazine says that earlier in his career he was bugged by French security services during an affair with a Soviet air hostess.

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