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Does a politician's private life matter?

Many a politician must envy the French leaders of the past, able to conduct their love lives free from the eyes of prying paparazzi.

Famously, François Mitterand had a whole second family: a fact that wasn't revealed until close to his death. François Hollande must have pined for those more private times last week, as he fought off questions about his alleged relationship with actress Julie Gayet, by saying this was a "private matter". He seemed to be drawing a line in the sand; attempting, perhaps, to hold on to an old ideal of privacy, against the onslaught of gossip.

Too late. A revolution already seems to be under way. Last week, Franck Louvrier, Nicolas Sarkozy's former presidential communications director, tweeted: "Politicians' private lives no longer exist."

Perhaps we Britons should feel ashamed of ourselves, and the culture we appear to have exported. The magazine that published the pictures was French Closer, an offshoot of the British publication. Our own commentators have written of their shock and horror at the disinterest shown by French journalists, and perhaps we look rather silly, with our appetite for tittle-tattle.

But even gossip has its place in freedom of speech, and it seems to me that there is some validity in the British belief that stories about the personal lives of public figures, particularly elected ones, illuminate our understanding of them.

Our attitude that a person is a whole, and that all parts of their lives say something about their character, is not unjustified. Sometimes we take it too far. We see a politician having an affair, and people speculate that if he cheats on his wife, he may cheat on the country. But other times it seems merited: we learn that Bill Walker MSP has abused his wives, and we don't want him in office.

What Closer did certainly seems familiar to us over here. A seven-page report carried the allegations, including photographs of a helmeted figure riding pillion on a scooter driven by a security guard, to a building where Gayet had just turned up. It was what French journalists in the wider media then did that differed from the habits of UK tabloid hacks: they showed restraint.

Hollande clearly wants to defend the principle of privacy - and Gayet is suing Closer magazine for breach of it. Meanwhile, many commentators are obsessing over what this story means for France and whether - in this age of Twitter and the blogosphere - the country is about to experience a revolution that will leave its strict privacy laws unworkable, and irrelevant.

Following the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, and the uncomfortable impression it left that the French media had failed to reveal the extent of the politician's alleged harassing behaviour, there is a growing feeling even in France that how people conduct themselves sexually is of political significance.

The behaviour of a man in power, particularly one who cheats on his wife, can be perceived as patriarchal and sexist. What, then, of Hollande? Is his behaviour towards Valerie Trierweiler, his first lady, the act of a "feminist" president, as he once declared himself?

Of course, the French are right in one respect: their reluctance to indulge in puritanical condemnation. We may be justified in thinking that personal behaviour is indicative of professional character, but over the Channel they are also right in allowing themselves a Gallic shrug over the sexual adventures of others. People's private lives, after all, are complex, and what such details say about their character is hard to read.

France seems for the most part unperturbed by what its president has done. Indeed, it could be argued he has done quite well out of the matter. His poll-rating - particularly among women - improved following the recent allegations. And no-one is calling for Hollande's resignation.

If he fails at the next election, it will be because of what his government has failed to achieve in the years of his being in office, not because his alleged liaison with an actress was exposed. The French, whatever their privacy laws, are likely to retain this sense of perspective. We should watch and learn.

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