I laughed over the François Hollande “affair”, even when Valérie Trierweiler’s “deep blues” resulted her being hospitalised. Seemed like the vapours that conveniently overcame Victorian ladies. Ha ha.
In India, by strange coincidence, a similar story was unfolding involving Shashi Tharoor, once a high-flyer at the UN and now an Indian MP and minister, as well as a columnist and author. Suave, handsome and talented, he’s a prolific tweeter with two million followers. I have debated with him at conferences and met his third wife, the glamorous Sunanda Pushkar, while visiting India.
Last week Pushkar was highly distressed over an alleged affair her husband was having with a Pakistani journalist, an accusation absolutely denied by Tharoor and the journo. I found it all very melodramatic and amusing. Then, on Friday, Pushkar was found dead in a hotel bedroom. The post-mortem examination concluded that her death was “sudden and unnatural”. We don’t and can’t know about what was actually going on in these relationships and should not make any judgements about the causes of Pushkar’s death until more details are released.
The fate of Trierweiler, too, will be made clear soon. But I now know it was wrong to make light of what these women were going through. The two stories raise broader questions about male politicians and women. I am heartily sick of French commentators who blithely describe Hollande’s capers as inconsequential and show off about how sophisticated the French are about adultery. In that civilisation the hurt felt by betrayed women must be concealed because it would be so un-French to complain. In India, too, women are taught to keep silent when bossed around, demeaned and violated by men. That includes women who have made it to the top corridors of power.
An erstwhile Indian female MP once told me: “If our society devalues women, politicians do so even more. They treat wives and daughters as if they are things and those of us who sit with them in the Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) have to put up with insults, ‘eve teasing’ and even groping. I have slapped two of my colleagues for touching me badly.” “Eve teasing” – sexual harassment and molestation in public spaces – is rife across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Sexism infects all political institutions and too many male political players across the world. Power makes them irresistible, as well as arrogant and incorrigible, in their private and public lives. Mistresses and wives choose politicians partly because power is sexy. And then find the life chosen can be perilous. Female colleagues are made to endure appalling behaviours because they are not respected or considered equals.
Very rarely do we get women in politics who treat their partners or colleagues with such cavalier disrespect. On the websites you find lists of the hottest and sexiest female politicians: Julia Gillard when PM of Australia was subjected to unbelievably vile sexist insults. The Huffington Post lists some anti-women comments made by US male senators and representatives. One of them, Congressman Steve Cohen, said Hillary Clinton was like the mad murderess in Fatal Attraction and should have stayed dead in the bathtub. An Internet animations game invites players to slap Mrs Clinton.
In France, female MPs endure obscene gestures, wolf whistles and other insults. Last year Philippe Le Ray made clucking noises when a female MP was talking and was (miraculously) fined for the rudeness. Journalist Éric Zemmour was contemptuous of the reactions to Le Ray and said that most elected women had seduced their way into parliament.
Which brings me to the Lord Rennard row. Bridget Harris, former special adviser to Nick Clegg, has quit, disgusted with the way the Liberal Democrats have closed ranks to protect a peer who is accused of sexual harassment by several female Lib Dems. And disgusted with Clegg’s total failure to be a leader on this serious issue. He witnesses the gestures and comments made week after week about female MPs’ clothes and bodies. He knows how discouraged aspirational women are by that culture. Politicians whose wives are in politics seem not to have these attitudes – Ed Balls, for example, or Peter Bottomley. But as Harris says: “There are plenty of sexual sleazebags going around in all parties”. There were times when I was asked to sexually service a minister in Thatcher’s government and had to embarrass a Labour minister who kept clasping my thighs as we sat together at a table engaged in debate. And one Lib Dem peer got so lecherous I warned him I would write about him. I do not give their names so as not to hurt their wives.
Such politicians, wherever they are, obviously don’t give a damn about “her at home”. And expect to do what they well like. Well they can’t. The personal, I believe, is the political and the political cannot but affect the personal. Hollande and Tharoor are learning that hard lesson. Others must too.
Fat chance of winning the war on sugar
After the huge success of BBC’s The Great British Bake-Off, Mary Berry is now as popular as the Queen. And baker Paul Hollywood is an unbeatable sex god.
Photogenic finalists have book deals that will make them rich and famous. Other televised food circuses and popular cookbooks keep stirring up naughty-but-nice desires for sweet fare. Customers flock to the Hummingbird Bakery, which makes American cupcakes, and to Patisserie Valerie. Commuters pick up a muffin more often than they pick up a newspaper these days.
A friend has turned into a muffin maker who feels rejected and wounded if I refuse her offerings.
I do love cakes and chocolate, but within limits. These are times of surfeit. The nation is egged on (!) to embrace the good (or sweet) life, return to old times when children came home from school and smells of baking wafted out of the kitchen. And found mummy in a floral apron.
Now, suddenly, war has been declared on sugar. It is, we’re warned, dangerous, devilishly bad, worse than cocaine. Everyone from toddlers to the elderly is hooked on the stuff.
With obesity levels in wealthy nations frighteningly high, I understand why there is panic. Maybe they could axe these cookery programmes? Or have warnings on recipes. Sugar could be highly taxed. All that happened in order to discourage smoking. Why not sugar? Ratings, dear, and profits.