If French standards of public life were as exportable as the cuisine or haute couture, Gary Hart might well be on his second term as American president, while David Mellor and Tim Yeo would still be enjoying their political careers. This week's photograph of Presidents Clinton and Mitterrand meeting in Brussels marked the contrast with some poignancy. The two met to discuss the fate of Bosnia, one near the start of his term of office, the other near the end of his political life. Yet it was the vigorous younger man who was politically weakened by allegations about his past sexual behaviour; allegations which would be unprintable if he were president of France. 'How very fortunate,' President Mitterrand must have been thinking, 'that I was born in Angouleme and not in Arkansas.'
In France, it is quite in order for a politician to have a mistress, and for that mistress to bear his children, and several of today's leading politicians have taken full advantage of that freedom. The French spend years of debate and millions of francs worrying about the demise of their national culture and devising laws to protect it, but they have one law which more than any other safeguards that culture and ensures that, in France, public life is still different.
The law of privacy, passed in 1970, is devoted to 'la protection de la vie privee'. It bans the publication of words or images which violate the secrecy surrounding an individual's private life or the life of a family, and is explicitly hostile to 'l'espionnage audio-visuel' - clandestine tapes or photographs.
In a case like Mr Yeo's, where a married man with two children fathers a child outside marriage, there would be no question in France of legally publishing anything at all about the matter without the consent of those concerned. The fact that the man happened to be minister for the environment, or indeed prime minister, would make no difference.
The privacy law is strictly enforced by the courts and, far from being imposed by shifty politicians with something to hide, enjoys widespread public support. Newspapers which step out of line usually find that their 'scoop' is ignored by rival publications, rather than being followed up enthusiastically. Respect for an individual's privacy is seen by the French as one mark of a civilised society.
It might seem paradoxical that a law designed to protect family life should prevent revelations about flagrant breaches of the rules of family life. But it is not seen as a paradox in France. The privacy law is justified on two grounds. The first is the conviction that family life can only flourish in the intimacy of the home. Peace and tranquillity are thought essential to family well-being. If there is a family crisis, it should be resolved in the privacy of the family. To the Gallic mind, that is self-evident.
In fact, the Yeo affair, as reported in the British press, is, in French eyes, the best possible example of the need for a strong privacy law, since now the Yeo family most needs its privacy.
But the privacy law is also founded on the conviction that an equal importance should be given to the freedom of all personal life. As far as the newspapers are concerned, the hotel bedroom is as sacrosanct as the home, because freedom of personal life also requires a respect for privacy. That is the theory. In practice, things can sometimes be a little less clear-cut.
When the 'topless Fergie' photographs were taken, through a long lens, of scenes beside a private swimming pool in the south of France and published in Paris Match, it seemed a clear case of breach of privacy. Accordingly, the Duchess of York and her financial adviser sued the magazine last year - and, in effect, lost. The Paris court recognised that there had been a fundamental breach of the duchess's privacy, but the judge unexpectedly ruled that, since the pictures had already been distributed all over the world, and since he himself had passed dozens of people buying the magazine on his way to work that morning, it was too late for any effective action.
However, that was an exception. As long as there is no issue of legitimate public interest, prominent people in France know that the press will almost always respect their privacy. It is, of course, a different matter where public money is involved, since this can lead to a criminal investigation which will be widely reported and, in subsequent proceedings, the full truth about an individual's private life may well emerge.
What most baffles the French about the recurrent British scandals is our attitude to politicians. The essential difference may be that it would never occur to a French voter to look to a politician for a moral lead; just as it would never occur to a French politician to give his voters a lecture on their morals. What is so special about men or women who have won an election, people ask in France. Why should they be expected to have these uniquely high standards? And aren't the British journalists and broadcasters also public figures who have to make moral judgements which affect national life? Would they like to be dismissed by a self-appointed committee of high-minded readers, or do they for some reason have a right to a private life?.
The French attitude is based on a profound tolerance of human frailty, as well as a profound cynicism about human motives. Which is why the Suffolk woman who departs on a crusade with 'the moral majority' for high standards among the leaders of the nation, will always seem so foreign to the man in the streets of Paris - who sees no more than voyeurism mixed with good, old-fashioned Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy.Reuse content