The French public may claim to be above prying into the personal lives of their leaders, but Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest isn't the first time a politician's sex life has made headlines.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Faure, who was president of France from 1895 to 1899, is today best remembered for two things: his role in the infamous Dreyfus affair, and the unusual way that he died. On Feb. 16, 1899, Faure was alone in a drawing room in the Élysée Palace with his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil, when he suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Steinheil, who described herself as the president’s “psychological advisor” was a frequent visitor to the palace, where she would be ushered in through a side door by a private detective to avoid being seen.
The exact circumstances of Faure’s death are not completely clear. According to one historian’s account, the two were found half-naked with Faure’s hand clenched in Steinheil’s hair. (Other historians say they probably weren’t actually having sex at the time.)
Whatever the circumstances, Faure’s critics in the left-wing press had a field day, inventing cheeky innuendos to describe the president’s death. “Felix Faure passed away in good health, indeed from the excess of good health,” wrote one paper. Steinheil acquired the nickname “La Pompe Funèbre,” a phrase referring to funeral rites that can also mean “funereal fellatrix.” Years later she was suspected (but never convicted) of killing her husband and stepmother, leading to her other nickname, the “red widow.”
The French public had been aware of and largely tolerant of Mitterrand’s peccadilloes for years, but it still came as a shock in 1994 when it was revealed that the president had, since 1981, kept a second family hidden from public view. (Many found the media coverage of the affair, however, more scandalous than the president’s behavior.)
For most of Mitterrand’s presidency, it became clear, he had spent most of his nights at the apartment of Anne Pingeot, an art historian. During a court case in which 12 officers were on trial for illegal surveillance of civilians, it was revealed that a Gendarmerie colonel had been employed almost entirely to shield Pingeot and her daughter, Mazarine, from press scrutiny.
Despite the secrecy, Mazarine remembers Mitterrand as a kind and attentive father — in contrast to the memoirs of his official sons — who recall him as cold and distant. Pingeot and Mazarine publicly attended Mitterrand’s funeral in 1996.
Like many of his predecessors, Chirac came into office in 1995 with a reputation as a ladies man, though the extent of his dalliances is a matter of some dispute. In her memoirs, his wife Bernadette wrote of the difficulties of living with a “handsome” man who has “enormous success” with women, writing that she only stayed with him for the sake of their children. (The two are still married.) Chirac’s former chauffeur corroborated that view in his memoir, writing of his boss’s many dalliances: “To an almost sickening degree … Chirac has had party militants, secretaries, all those with whom he spent five busy minutes.”
The former president doesn’t completely deny the allegations, but says his reputation has been exaggerated. “Amorous adventures have not played a determining role in my life. There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible,” he told an interviewer in 2007. He didn’t confirm or deny the widespread reports that he had maintained a long-term affair with a journalist while he was prime minister in the 1970s, but said that in any case, “it is not something that had a big effect on me.”
Despite his own extracurricular activities, Chirac was reportedly taken aback during a private visit to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s villa, noting that his counterpart’s sexual boasting and large collection of pornography made him a “rather strange guy.”
The French public’s famous laissez-faire attitude toward the personal lives of their political leaders was put to the test by the courtship and marriage of Nicolas “President Bling-Bling” Sarkozy and actress/model Carla Bruni. Sarkozy divorced his wife of 11 years, Cécilia, shortly after taking office in 2007 — both had allegedly had affairs during their on-again-off-again relationship.
He began dating Bruni within months and their very public relationship — darting off to paparazzi-tailed vacations in North Africa while the French economy tanked — led to an erosion of Sarkozy’s support among older French voters. The relationship became even more of a distraction when he threatened to sue a tabloid that alleged he had sent text messages to Cecilia offering to take her back, just a week before his marriage to Bruni.
Given their reputations — Bruni once proclaimed herself “bored to death by monogamy” — it’s hardly surprising that France’s first couple have themselves been dogged by rumors of infidelity. Sarkozy reportedly revoked the security privileges of his high-profile former justice minister, Rachida Dati, over reports that she had spread rumors that Bruni was having an affair with another pop singer.
In a 2005 memoir, The Bad Life, television presenter and writer Frederic Mitterrand, nephew of the former president, wrote candidly of his experiences paying for sex with “boys” in Thailand, despite full knowledge of “the sordid details of this traffic.” “All these rituals of the market for youths, the slave market excited me enormously,” he wrote. “[T]he abundance of very attractive and immediately available young boys put me in a state of desire.”
Surprisingly, the admission didn’t prevent Mitterrand from being named France’s minister of culture four years later. It only became a media scandal after he publicly defended Polish-French film director Roman Polanski, who has been charged in the United States with the rape of a 13-year-old girl.
On the defensive, Mitterrand said he had used the word “boys” figuratively and that “each time I was with people of my age, [or] who were five years older than me. There was never the slightest ambiguity — and they were consenting.”
Despite criticism from the opposition, Sarkozy backed his culture minister; Mitterrand still has the job today.