On Why the French Value Privacy

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Those who have been following the news may know that French President François Hollande’s affair with actress Julie Gayet, is making headlines worldwide. While followers around the world consider it a scandal, the French reaction could be described as more of a collective shrug.

A recent study by the Pew Research center suggests that French voters are less fazed by allegations of infidelity by politicians than other nations. According to the survey, less than half consider extramarital dalliances to be morally unacceptable (compared to 60% in Germany and 84% in the US).

For the French, personal and professional affairs are two distinct entities, and public figures expect the same respect for privacy as any citizen. We can see this in the different ways the French media has approached the story in contrast to the UK and other more conservative nations where maintaining an image of “family values” is essential for political success.

“Private matters should be dealt with privately”, said Hollande when questioned about the incident. And for the most part, his fellow countrymen are respecting his request.

After the magazine Closer published a seven-page exposé on the alleged tryst, most of the French public was offended by the publication’s breach of privacy, more so than by Hollande’s indiscretion. Compare that with the salacious tell-alls by British and American publications, and you’ll immediately pick up on some key cultural differences between the French and their Anglophone peers when it comes to private affairs.

Why might France covet such privacy? The three guiding principles of French culture lie in the national motto: liberté, égalité, fraternité. Of the three, liberté (liberty) is by far the most relevant. It is defined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen as follows: “Liberty consists of being able to do anything that does not harm others: thus, the exercise of the natural rights of every man or woman has no bounds other than those that guarantee other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights.”

The French hold comparatively liberal attitudes on family, marriage, and sexuality and appear to be unshockable to some outsiders. It’s not uncommon for upper class, educated couples to have families outside of marriage. Holland himself fathered four children with his former common law partner, Segolene Royal — a fact that did not sway his supporters.

The French rarely receive people in their homes and are suspicious of those who are too forthcoming about their personal lives. While few conversation topics are strictly off-limits, most prefer not to discuss their families or romantic relationships. Verbal exchanges tend to be more calculated, and where some cultures will try to fill conversational gaps with small talk, the French use silence to create distance. It is important to consider this should a conversation start to taper. It may be appropriate to politely end the discussion.

There is no faster way to alienate a French colleague than to tread on their privacy or personal autonomy. Even if you’re well-intentioned, refrain from commenting on someone’s private affairs until you know a person very well. Most visitors to France find that as long as privacy is respected, pleasant relationships are easy to maintain with your French peers. Foreigners should also know that despite some initial reticence, the French are warm, hospitable people, and often make excellent lifelong friends once you’ve found your way into their inner circle. The key is to allow relationships to develop naturally and monitor how much information you choose to share.

How do you see the concept of privacy in France vis-à-vis political careers? Does it really not matter to the French, or does it depend on other factors?

Above photo: French President, Francois Hollande pictured with former partner, Valerie Trierweiler.