Flustered French parents hurriedly shooed their children away from the TV last week as a bland discussion program suddenly turned into a torrid description of cruising for gay sex in Asian brothels. "I got into the habit of paying for boys," one of the participants read from a text. "All these rituals of a fair for the sale of Adonises, of a slave market, excite me enormously.… The profusion of very attractive and immediately available boys puts me into a state of desire which I no longer need to restrain or conceal.… Western morality, guilt and shame shatter to pieces. And the rest of the world can go to hell."
The reading was from an autobiography baldly entitled La Mauvaise Vie ("The Bad Life") by Frédéric Mitterrand, the French government's new minister of culture. It was being read by Marine Le Pen, a leader of the right-wing National Front party, who was attacking Mitterrand for his passionate defense of Roman Polanski.
When Swiss police arrested Polanski in Zurich Sept. 26 at the request of U.S. authorities on charges of raping a 13-year-old girl in Los Angeles in 1977, one of the first to fly to the film director's defense was France's minister of culture. He was "horrified" by the way a French citizen and a major artist was being treated, "thrown to the lions because of ancient history… a frightening America has just shown its face." It was an astonishing statement by a high official of a government theoretically friendly to the U.S.
Many in France were uncomfortable with Mitterrand's emotional justification of an avowed pedophile rapist. But Le Pen was one of the few to show up his brazen hypocrisy. "Does belonging to the showbiz caste exonerate its members from respecting laws and authorize them to escape prosecution for 30 years?" she asked. Then she began quoting from Mitterrand's lurid account of his experiences as a sex tourist buying young men in Thailand and Indonesia, enjoying smiling kids trying to escape poverty by sweet-talking a middle-aged Frenchman who liked to hear them say in broken English, "I want you happy." She concluded with a call for his resignation as being unfit to serve in a government that actively campaigns against sex tourism. Touché!
But Le Pen had done more than denounce France's twisted position on Polanski. She had called attention to Mitterrand's sordid past, shocking those who had not seen fit to read his 2005 autobiography -- meaning most of France, including members of the government and your correspondent. Until now Mitterrand has been known -- if he was known at all -- as a lightweight radio and television personality who also happened to be the nephew of the late socialist president François Mitterrand.
After his election in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy picked him to head the French Academy in Rome, a sinecure with artistic pretensions. Though Mitterrand had no visible qualifications for the post, the move was part of Sarkozy's policy of ouverture, including leftists in his administration as a way of defanging the opposition. Mitterrand had never been active in politics, but his name was synonymous in the public's mind with 14 years of socialist government.
When Sarkozy discussed the new job with Mitterrand last summer during a cabinet reshuffle, Mitterrand says he asked the president whether the autobiography might be a problem. He now claims Sarkozy replied, "No, I found it courageous and talented." That seems an unlikely comment from a man not known for his love of literature. A more likely explanation for the choice, many here believe, is the influence of Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, who has been coaching him in the finer things. A card-carrying member of the showbiz/arty set, she is credited with considerable influence over the president. She counts Mitterrand among her friends.
It didn't take long for the socialists to seize on the issue that their virulent adversaries, the National Front, had raised, seconding Le Pen in calling for Mitterrand's head. "We can't have a minister who represents France encouraging the violation of our international engagements to fight sexual tourism," said one socialist leader calling for his portfolio to be revoked.
France does indeed consider itself in the forefront of the fight against sex tourism, but Sarkozy's team danced around this in trying to defend Mitterrand. "He hasn't said anything against France's position on that," said an obviously embarrassed Henri Guaino, the president's special counsellor, completely begging the question of his fitness for the job. The justice minister, Michele Alliot-Marie, philosophised that "There are difficult periods and shadows in everyone's life." The one word that no one uttered, either government members or media commentators, was that great taboo in sophisticated, post-Christian France: morality.
Mitterrand may have felt he could hide behind that, as well as the reluctance of the French media to report on politicians' private lives. His uncle, after all, had maintained a secret second family, with mistress and illegitimate daughter kept at public expense, about which the complaisant press reported nothing. But possible sexual abuse by a minister was pushing even French tolerance too far.
Sensing that he was losing the battle for public opinion, Sarkozy -- who has made no public statement on the affair as of this writing -- huddled with his counsellors early Wednesday morning and decided Mitterrand should go on TV to explain himself. His appearance is not his trump card: with his fleshy, pendulous lower lip, hang-dog eyes, and soft, purring, insinuating voice, Mitterrand, 62, is perfectly cast as a sex tourist on the prowl through the boy brothels of Bangkok. Not the sort you would like to see scoutmaster of your son's troop.
In an interview on a prime time nightly news program Thursday, he bobbed and weaved, trying to deflect questions about his ethics and making fine distinctions between his homosexuality and pedophilia. Visibly upset, he admitted to sex tourism but denied buying sex from minors, while saying, "Yes, I had relations with boys." Asked to clear that up, he explained that, in his personal vocabulary of perversion, he habitually refers to the male prostitutes he has frequented as garçons or boys, and sometimes as gosses, or kids. In fact, he maintained, the prostitutes were about his age.
He condemned sex tourism -- belatedly, some might find -- and pedophilia, "in which I have never participated." Polls show only about one-quarter of viewers found him convincing. As of today, Mitterrand still has not said exactly what he did in those Thai and Indonesian brothels, or how he knew that the "slaves" he abused were actually adult. And the basic question in all this remains unanswered: How can a man of his past and proclivities -- a former sex tourist -- be the official personification of French culture?
Besides the stain on the face of French culture, the other loser in l'affaire Mitterrand is Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency. When the socialist opposition is exhibiting more moral clarity than the supposedly conservative government, you know something is rotten in the state of France. Sarkozy came into office two years ago promising to repair the moral damage done by the 1968 student revolt and resulting relativism of values. Now his relations with the traditionalist and conservative voters who brought him to power are seriously compromised.
If the letters columns of newspapers and the comments on their websites are any indication, a great many French citizens feel disgusted with their government over this. Some are taking to the streets: when Mitterrand inaugurated an art exhibit in Bordeaux over the weekend, he was jeered by protesters pushing baby carriages and carrying posters saying, "Don't touch our children. Mitterrand resign!"