PMs and prudes: What if it was David Cameron accused of having an affair in office?

Andy McSmith wonders how our media would react – and whether he would be able to keep his job

Related Topics

One thing that has become clear this week: British and French journalists do not understand each other. As the British political press corps watched President François Hollande's televised news conference, they could hardly believe that their French counterparts could ask polite questions about economics when there was juicy sex scandal lurking like l'éléphant dans la salle.

Yesterday, Agence France-Presse reported with an undertone of weary amusement the outrage in British media that the President's bedroom romps could be treated as less important than the future of his country's economy.

Since the Profumo scandal 50 years ago, British journalists have acquired the habit of rummaging aggressively in the private lives of elected politicians in a manner that would be considered intrusive and possibly illegal in other democracies. In France, during 13 of the 14 years that François Mitterrand was President, the existence of a daughter he had fathered out of wedlock was never reported. She was 20 years' old when the secret was broken. Mitterrand's wife and his former lover stood side by side at his funeral in 1996, flanked by his children, legitimate and illegitimate. French public opinion was stubbornly unscandalised.

Today, most French people appear to agree with their president when he pleads that his private life should be private, and if some French journalists are a little embarrassed by the deference their profession has shown to their wayward leader, they plead that they operate with a political culture that differs from Britain's. "Every country has its own traditions. We are still a republican monarchy," Alain Barluet, the French journalist who did put a politely worded question to President Hollande about the status of the first lady, told the BBC's Today programme. He added that in a news conference in the presidential palace, "it's not the decorum for anything else but polite exchange".

Now ask yourself how long David Cameron would survive in office if he left Samantha for another woman, then cheated on his mistress with a glamorous actress, riding to his assignations through busy London streets on a scooter – hoping to conceal his identity under a large helmet – as France's president is alleged to have done.

This contrast throws up two separate issues that are often confused – the first is whether the public has any right to know what the rich and powerful get up to behind the bedroom curtains; the other is whether someone who cheats on his or her spouse can be trusted in high office.

François Hollande is in no doubt that he is entitled to keep his sex life private, but in Britain there is a powerful suspicion that any privacy law that concealed the sexual misdemeanours of powerful figures would be used to conceal other, more sinister secrets.

While John Major was prime minister, he guarded the secret of his three-year affair with Edwina Currie, even to the point of taking legal action against the New Statesman that almost closed down the magazine.

One of Major's greatest blunders was to launch a campaign entitled "Back to Basics" which was interpreted as meaning that the Conservative Party stood for sexual morality. It provided the pretext for the red-top press to go into the private lives of everyone in his government, until scarcely a week went by without someone else being force to resign. None of the resignations can be said to have resulted in better government.

It would have been advisable, in retrospect, if Major had been open about his own past and had stood firm on the principle that sexual infidelity between consenting adults should not be a bar to public office. However, in the circumstances of the time, if his past peccadillo had been public knowledge, the Conservatives would never have chosen him to lead their party into an election.

When French voters receive the news of their president's philandering with utter indifference, while wanting to know how he proposes to sort out their economy, they are showing good sense that is sometimes lacking in our body politic.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Junior Software Developer

£24000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Junior Software Deve...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Store Sales Executive

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Night Porters - Seasonal Placement

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Night Porters are required to join a family-ow...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executives - B2B

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Genius Ltd continue...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Yorkshire Terrier waits to be judged during the Toy and Utility day of the Crufts dog show at the NEC in Birmingham  

There are no winners at Crufts. Dogs deserve better than to suffer and die for a 'beauty' pageant

Mimi Bekhechi

Daily catch-up: how come Ed Miliband’s tuition fee ‘cut’ is so popular, then?

John Rentoul
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn