In this composite image a comparison has been made between Francois Hollande (L) and Julie Gayet. Credit: Getty Images
With a 15 perfect approval rating, French President Francois Hollande was in crisis before allegations of an extra-marital tryst with actress Julie Gayet emerged. His refusal to deny the affair, and the hospitalisation of his partner Valerie Trierweiler, threatens to destroy what remains of his reputation.
But the embattled leader may be able to staunch the bleeding. Previous French presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were able to laugh off infidelities with indulgence of the media.
“Hollande would be adhering to a time-honored French tradition of official mistresses,” wrote Professor Matthew Fraser, politics and media specialist at Sciences Po Paris.
Culturally, France has always been less interested in politicians’ love lives than in the UK or US. This has been reflected in a cross-party refusal to attack Hollande, while a magazine opinion poll showed 77 percent considered the subject a ‘private matter’.
The scandal could even provide some respite.
“Hollande may benefit from changing the subject away from bad news on the economy,” says Dr. James Stanyer of Loughborough University, author of "Intimate Politics" and a study comparing sexual attitudes in different countries. “He could be seen as more of a personality and get more attention for that.”
Political scientists have shown that sex scandals are traditionally less damaging than other types. Texas Tech University found that corruption typically costs almost twice as many votes as sex, with the gap even higher for left-wing candidates. Bill Clinton and Silvio Berlusconi are among the leaders to sail through sleaze affairs.
Hollande may also benefit from his partner being even less popular, partly through a perception that Trierweiler exploits her position despite not being officially the First Lady, and allegations that she may also have been unfaithful. Despite her apparent victimhood, a French news agency found over 89 percent would like Hollande to end the relationship - so that a change of partner would be a populist move.
How the President reacts will be critical. Cases of "infidelity plus," where an affair is compounded by another offense, such as dishonesty or assault - as in the recent case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn - would be viewed more harshly.
“The only good tactic is honesty,” says Stanyer. “If he tells the truth there is a good chance this will blow over, and he could emerge stronger.”
Should Hollande survive, he will be grateful to the unique tolerance of French society. But he will have learned that scrutiny is growing, and would be advised to keep secrets better.