The stakeout: French President François Hollande gets taste of love, American-style

Video: Under pressure over a magazine report that he is having a secret affair with an actress, French President Francois Hollande told reporters he is going through "painful moments.”

The media team camped all night outside the ritzy apartment building, waiting for a prominent politician to visit his presumed paramour. The photographer snapped the alleged cheater arriving in the evening and exiting in the morning. ¶ Gotcha! In the United States, it’d be a great stakeout, maybe ignite a classic sex scandal. ¶ But the target this time was in Paris and happened to be the president of France, Francois Hollande. A celebrity magazine called Closer photographed him visiting an actress’s borrowed apartment less than 500 feet from the presidential palace. He got there on the back of a moped driven by a security guard, using a helmet to hide his identity. But sex scandal? Mais non. This is France! ¶ The Hollande affair is a national talker, but moral outrage appears absent. The president and the first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, aren’t married to begin with. At a news conference Tuesday in Paris, not one of the hundreds of reporters on hand raised the question of whether Hollande would, say, quit.

Instead, the journalists diffidently inquired whether Trierweiler, Hollande’s partner since 2007, was still the first lady, given that there is evidently another lady in the mix. Trierweiler checked into a hospital last week after learning Closer would be publishing an expose on Hollande’s alleged trysts; her office said she was suffering from shock and needed to rest.

(POOL/REUTERS) - French President Francois Hollande, left, and his companion Valerie Trierweiler arrive for a state dinner at the Elysee Palace in Paris, May 7, 2013.

Toulouse's archbishop Mgr Robert Le Gall (2nd L) and members of the brotherhood of the Bessieres' giant Easter omelette prepare a giant omelette with thousands of eggs, on April 21, 2014 in Bessieres, southwestern France, as part of a traditional Easter celebration. AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDAREMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images

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“Everyone in their personal life goes through difficult times,” said Hollande, who has not denied having another girlfriend. “These are painful moments. But I have one principle. These private matters must be dealt with privately. . . . This is neither the time nor the place” to address it.

At some point he will have to address it, though. He and Trierweiler were invited by President Obama in November to attend a state dinner honoring France on Feb. 11.

The stakeout scenario has played out much differently in the United States, claiming important political careers in its various permutations. After the media lay in wait attempting to prove that they had mistresses, Democratic senators Gary Hart in 1987 and John Edwards in 2008 saw their presidential aspirations consumed by infidelity scandals. A stakeout on Clinton White House adviser Dick Morris in 1996, showing his consorting with a prostitute, led to his resignation.

Today, though, stakeouts usually involve celebrities. Some are phony, set up in advance and orchestrated by publicity agents. The celebs, particularly reality TV personalities, are known to tip off photo agencies about where they can be found shopping or otherwise going about their business, says Barry Levine, executive editor of the National Enquirer.

“Overall with news organizations, the stakeout, even though it’s routine in Hollywood, in terms of real scandal reporting, it’s become a lost art,” says Levine. “That’s because it takes a lot of money and a lot of effort and organization to mount these operations.”

For more than two months, he said, the Enquirer staked out the gated community in North Carolina where Edwards’s pregnant mistress, Rielle Hunter, was living; Levine was convinced the tabloid had a story that the national media essentially ignored. The Enquirer also staked out the Beverly Hilton Hotel to get the clincher photo of Edwards visiting his and Hunter’s child.

The Closer stakeout was risky, given the possibility of armed presidential security officers taking aim at the magazine’s sleuths. The photographer on the scene, Sebastien Valiela, said he was surprised by the lack of security. “I think the president is not well protected,” he told a French radio network.

“Hats off to the magazine,” Levine said of its scoop.

Closer’s stakeout appears to be unprecedented in France, where several presidents have taken mistresses, with scant interest from the media. The magazine’s tactics were not well received by either the public or other news organizations.

“Closer broke the rules,” says Laura Haim, White House correspondent for Canal + I tele, the French TV channel. “The final frontier is the private life. You cannot touch someone’s private life.”

The gossip magazine’s cover story linking the 59-year-old president to Julie Gayet, 41, may have actually stirred some support for the hugely unpopular Hollande, whom many blame for unemployment, high taxes and a general economic implosion.

“It’s making a mountain of a molehill,” said Peggy Sejourne, 40, who works for an insurance firm in Paris. “For me, the real problem is the devolution of the comportment of the press in its dealings with the private lives of politicians.”

Some who watched the president’s lengthy, traditional new-year news conference Tuesday said Hollande acquitted himself well. “I think he did a good job by simply refusing to engage in a debate on private matters,” said political scientist Dominique Moisi. “In the end, people were able to listen to his message” on matters of state.

In the United States, for decades, a sort of gentleman’s agreement kept the press from reporting on the sex lives of presidents or other prominent politicos. But the Hart case represented a journalistic crossing of the Rubicon. Amid rumors linking him to a relationship with a Florida woman, Hart challenged reporters to “follow me around” — essentially, prove it.

The Miami Herald reporters who staked out his townhouse found that he had spent the night with the woman, Donna Rice. And the Enquirer obtained a photo to document the relationship, showing Rice on Hart’s lap on a boat called Monkey Business.

“Pictures are the ‘gotcha moment’ to the public; pictures don’t lie,” says Levine. “You don’t often get an A-plus image where the politician and the mistress are staring squarely into the camera.”

In France, the explosion of social media may eventually overcome journalistic restraint even in a country where privacy is among the most cherished of commodities. Politicians can’t expect anything to be off limits, Moisi said.

“The boundaries between private life and public life have disappeared,” he said. “A public figure must know that at some point people will know about his private life. And so he can choose to be discreet or not so discreet, but in any case it will be exposed.

“It’s not a good thing or a bad thing. It’s inevitable given the evolution that has taken place.”

As for the looming state dinner, a White House official offered this statement Tuesday: “The President looks forward to welcoming President Hollande in February.”

No mention of whether Hollande will bring a date.

Michele Langevine Leiby contributed to this report.

 
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