A Closer look: What the Francois Hollande and Kate Middleton scandals tell us about the French press

Far from being constrained by supposedly strict privacy laws, France's glossy magazines are invading the private lives of the rich and famous at will. And now even previously protected politicians can't escape

John Lichfield
Wednesday 22 January 2014 17:26

Marion Alombert is the editor of a magazine which systematically breaks the law.

She is not a political dissident in a repressive Third World state, but the editor of Voici, one of the largest circulation weekly magazines in France.

How often does she lose legal cases? “It is difficult to give you a precise figure,” Ms Alombert told The Independent. “We must lose at least two every week and sometimes up to four or five per issue…”

Welcome to the bizarre world of the French privacy laws.

In theory, any discussion of the private lives of public figures – and everyone else – is strictly forbidden in France. In theory, an editor can be sent to jail for a year for publishing without permission a photograph taken in a private place.

In practice, the law is flouted week after week by half a dozen flourishing magazines including the French version of Closer, which revealed the nocturnal, scooter-borne romantic escapades of President François Hollande.

For years these magazines – Voici, France Dimanche, Public, Ici Paris, Gala, joined recently by even cheekier new entrants such as Closer and Oops! – have been chronicling the private lives of French or international celebrities and European royal families.

And, on an almost weekly basis. they publish ugly white boxes in which they apologise and report the damages paid for their revelations of previous weeks.

Hollande has said he will not sue 'Closer' magazine

Traditionally – unlike in Britain or the United States – French politicians have been shielded from the gossip-mongering and telephoto lenses of the “people” press.

The barriers began to crumble during the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, who himself systematically muddled the political and the private. The process was accelerated by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandals and – above all - by the aggressiveness and apparent immunity from the law of French-language gossip sites on the internet.

Then, in September 2012, Closer gained international notoriety when it pushed the boundaries still further and published topless photos of Kate Middleton. The magazine's scoop on President Hollande’s love affair with the actress Julie Gayet tore away the final curtain.

The French approach to privacy is often cited as an example during the post-Leveson debate in Britain - as a model by some and as a warning by others. The French privacy laws are, in truth, a classic French paradox.

They are strict in theory but not in practice. Their application is steeped in cynicism and hypocrisy. And at the same time they do represent a genuine difference in French cultural attitudes towards the privacy of the lives of public figures.

There is no daily tabloid press in France on the British or American or German model. “Mainstream” French newspapers do not expose sexual escapades. Even the excellent investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine ignores “histoires du cul” (literally, bum stories).

Kate Middleton: Closer published topless photographs of her in 2012

At the same time, there is a thriving weekly “people” or celebrity press which sells an estimated 2,600,000 copies a week. If you include Paris Match (which is also partly a magazine of general reportage), the figure is over 3,300,000. How can such an industry survive – and even thrive – despite the strict French privacy laws?

There are, in fact, NO specific privacy laws in France. All springs from the declaration of human rights in 1789, which led to a clause in the French Republic’s civil code: “Everyone has a right to respect of their private life.”

In civil law, the definition of what is, and what is not “private life” depends on jurisprudence - in other words what previous court rulings have declared it to be.

In criminal law, the penal code sets down harsh penalties for any publication which uses without permission pictures taken in a private place or remarks made in private. The maximum penalties are a fine of €45,000 and/or a year in prison.

Delphine Meillet, a lawyer specialising in press law, said: “It is myth that the privacy laws are tough in France. Almost no one makes a complaint under penal law, because it takes so long. Most celebrities sue in civil courts which is much quicker and pays them better. The damages can sometimes go up to €10,000, which is dissuasive for newspapers but not for the “people” magazines.”

Many judgements are much lower. In 1999, The Independent, and the present writer, lost a privacy case in France against a well-known, former French news reader. He was awarded damages of one franc – the equivalent of 10p.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy: he systematically muddled the political and the private (Getty)

Ms Alombert, editor of Voici, says that paying out legal damages is, for a magazine like hers, a necessary business expense.

“We have to take the risk because otherwise we could not do what we do,” she said. “But we try to minimise the penalties whenever we can.”

“Yes, it is a game if you like. We fight hard in the courts if we believe that a celebrity has set up photographs and then sued us because we used them. And, believe me, that happens in France all the time. There are celebrities, but also lawyers, who surf profitably on the law.”

“So we have to make tough decisions every week. Is a fairly interesting story on a minor celebrity worth the risk of paying damages? No, maybe it isn’t. But if we have a story which is a good one, then yes, we go ahead, knowing that we will face legal action.”

Some French celebs – or “people” in French slang – are notorious for systematically taking the criminal, rather than civil, complaint route. One example is the actress Catherine Deneuve. As a result, she is rarely mentioned by the glossy magazines.

Another exception is Prince William, who has brought a criminal complaint against Closer for its publication of the topless photographs. The case is still meandering though the French legal system.

Julie Gayet has adopted the more usual, speedier, and more lucrative civil route. She is sueing Closer for damages of €80,000. The case will be heard in the next couple of weeks.

Julie Gayet is sueing Closer for damages of €80,000

Under the existing jurisprudence, Closer can put up two possible defences or pleas in mitigation. First, that exposure of her affair with the President was in the “public interest”. Secondly, that Ms Gayet and Mr Hollande had often sought publicity in the past for their private activities. The magazine may have a case on the first point but not on the second.

Arguably, the revelation of the President’s affair was more in the “public interest” (as opposed to “interesting to the public”) than most scoops in glossy magazines. It raised genuine questions about the unmarried Ms Trierweiler’s continuing status, and her staff of five, as Première Dame of France.

Dominique Wolton, a veteran commentator on the French media and director of the Institut des sciences de la communication (ISCC), says that the Hollande-Gayet affair has forced France to confront one its most cherished modern myths.

“We love to say that our press is more respectable than the Anglo-Saxon press but we conveniently ignore the fact that we have a section of our own press which has become even worse. This is a hypocrisy.

“There is genuinely a widespread feeling in France that private lives, even of public figures, should remain private. At the same time, there are just as many voyeurs in France as elsewhere. Otherwise these magazines would not exist.”

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