In the Anglo Saxon mind, there is an image of the French citoyen or citoyenne. The figure is soigne, but not to excess. A little scornful, but courteous. Intellectual, or at least conversant with intellectuals’ output. A little arrogant, but not with the poor. The French are sophisticated, sexy, sharp - a standing rebuke to the lumpishness, ignorance and limping French of the outre-mer-istes.

This image partly explains the dislike of the French that runs like a dark thread through the Anglophone world - even after two centuries, more or less, of alliance in peace and comradeship in two world wars. The dislike derives, in part, from Anglophone insecurity, but the rest comes from a real and carefully cultivated concern on the part of the French political and intellectual classes with being clever, sophisticated and sharp.

Both image and reality have always depended, above all, on aloofness - a studied above-it-all-ness based on intellect and taste, the hauteur of an elite that does not owe its place to the privilege of aristocracy that lingers across the Channel, and that does not need to prove its attachment to egalite by wearing dreadful shorts and having barbecues like these other republicans, the Americans.

Detachment was the key. The grand figures of postwar French politics - Charles de Gaulle, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterand - were Delphic in their actions and pronouncements, especially the General. “Une certaine idee de la France” (which meant what?). “Je vous ai compris” (to the Algerian pieds-noirs, before pulling the rug from under their pieds, which may indeed have been a sign of understanding them). The phrase and the manner were not all, but much.

That’s gone - and how. The two candidates for president of France are now down there with the rest of us, yea, even unto the Anglo Saxons. Segolene Royal, the socialist contender, let it be known that she thought New Labour had a lot going for it (especially its knack of winning elections) - before retreating behind a list of socialist measures, from which her economic adviser resigned rather than calculate the cost. The contender of the right, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his book Temoignage, commends Britain for pulling itself out of its 1970s depths to the point that “the British GDP is now 10 per cent higher than that of France and the British standard of living is higher than that of the French.” He adds that in the US: “You can start with nothing and be exceptionally successful. You can fail and be allowed a second chance.”

But that’s not all. The extraordinary thing is that the aloofness has gone. Both candidates have been photographed in bathing suits (to their advantage - good bodies for early-fifties). Both talk continually about themselves. Both are also talked about - not for their political programmes, which are arresting and detailed, but for their personal lives, which are intriguing if you like to gossip, which almost everyone does.

On the websites - and limping after these, the mainstream media - the personal details are hashed over. Does Sarkozy, as he claims, really love the wife who left him, publicly, for another man who could spare her some time? Is it sincere or is it publicity when he writes: “We are not able, and do not know how, to separate from each other?”

What are Royal’s relations with her common-law husband, Francois Hollande, who is general secretary of her party, seems to take her pre-eminence with an ill grace, has contradicted her programme on television and who, one of her advisers said, was her biggest problem (the adviser was sacked, but still)?

And where polemics were once what you launched at other parties, they are now rife within both the left and right camps - publicly. Laurent Fabius, a former (Mitterand-era) prime minister and the left’s favourite candidate for the presidency, asked rhetorically of the woman he was campaigning against for the nomination - “who’s looking after the [four] children?” - a much better remembered comment than his strictures on her alleged rightwing deviations.

And rather than disguise the enmity between him and president Jacques Chirac - whose protege he had been - Sarkozy devotes several pages of Temoignage to the feuds, which he self-servingly represents as the result of his forthrightness. “Those who know me realise that I do not like to lie, either to others or to myself. I say what I think. I do what I say. It is a mixed blessing, but that is how it is.”

As Sarkozy writes of his relationship with Cecilia, his wife, “when everything is public, the little things of life become huge…the change towards the transparency of private life, unimaginable only 10 years ago, has become inescapable today.”

Inescapable is the mot juste: for now, even French politicians operating at the highest level are caught in the coils of transparency, demanded by the public through the media, especially the new media of the blogs and the internet, and feeding an appetite which grows on what it feeds.

All that sophisticated pride, which had contempt for the Anglo Saxons’ obsession with sexual scandals, with the revelations of affairs which every self-respecting Frenchman or woman of power had too much taste to mention, is now gone.

So much so, that even the last of the old “elephants” felt compelled to write, in his memoir, that “amorous adventures have not played a determining role in my life. There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible.” President Chirac, spilling a few of the beans. He is among the last who can do so when he judges the time right.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article