“France has neither winter nor summer nor morals,” observed Mark Twain. “Apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.” The sage of Hannibal, Missouri, was right on both points. France’s temperate climate, moderated by the Gulf Stream, lacks the sharply defined seasons of the United States. And its people — amusingly flighty, fickle, and frivolous — have a decidedly different view of what constitutes morality and character, especially concerning politicians. Case in point: the precipitous downfall of a close ally of President Emmanuel Macron who was caught, literally, with his pants down.
Benjamin Griveaux has been one of the fastest-rising stars of Macron’s political constellation. As one of the original Macron Boys, he helped found his new party, La République En Marche (LREM), in 2017. He quickly became the campaign’s most visible and voluble member, helping turn its motley, ad-hoc grouping of grass-roots volunteers into a formal political party that propelled to the presidency the relatively unknown former investment banker with no political experience. Once Macron was ensconced in the Élysée Palace, he gratefully named Griveaux the new government’s official spokesman.
At age 40, he had come a long, tortuous way since being an adviser to a certain Dominique Strauss-Kahn, known familiarly as DSK, during his unsuccessful attempt to become the Socialist Party’s candidate in the 2007 presidential election. By the time DSK had to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund in 2011 after sexually assaulting a chambermaid in a New York hotel, Griveaux had moved on to greener political pastures. (See “The Great Seducers,” The American Spectator, October 2011.) In retrospect, it appears that he and DSK, a self-proclaimed debauchee with a track record to prove it, had more in common in temperament than in politics.
Macron decided that the next step for his protégé would be mayor of Paris. That seemed a safe bet; he himself had easily carried the city in the 2017 presidential, thanks to the capital’s eco-aware, fully woke liberal bent. He saw Griveaux as the man to wrest city hall from the long-reigning Socialists and help consolidate the LREM nationally. The young party, struggling to overcome the bumbling amateurism of its politically inexperienced, heteroclitic adherents, has never taken root. On top of that, squabbling within its ranks has led to 13 parliamentary members leaving it in the last two years.
Acting on Macron’s orders, LREM last year named Griveaux its candidate for the municipal elections coming up in March 2020. Overtly ambitious and obnoxiously pushy, he jumped at the chance to take on Anne Hidalgo, the current Socialist mayor. But he quickly alienated many with his arrogant, abrasive style and a series of harebrained projects, from demolishing a Paris train station to make way for an ersatz Central Park, to creating a legion of “street managers,” and giving $110,000 of helicopter money to buyers of first homes. His campaign struggled in the polls.
The coup de grâce lasted only 30 seconds. That was the length of an online video Griveaux sent to a young woman showing him pleasuring himself with the message, “This is me in the morning when I wake up.” Within hours after the material was posted to an ad hoc website called Pornopolitique (since taken down), Griveaux withdrew his candidacy, blaming “vile” attacks on his private life. “My family does not deserve this,” he said in a video on February 14. He positioned himself as the victim of his irresponsible foolishness rather than his family, campaign staff, and party: “Nobody should ever be subjected to this kind of abuse.” It was France’s Anthony Weiner moment, but with special significance: the first time an acting politician has been brought down by an indiscreet amour. That has left French politicos in a state of panic over the perils of a new, digital age in which unwanted light could be shed on their private lives.
The offending website was created by Pyotr Pavlensky, a soi-disant performance artist expelled from Russia in 2017 who was granted political exile in France. A tall, shaven-headed 34-year-old with a creepy, impassive face like something out of El Greco, Pavlensky claimed that he published the material in order to expose Griveaux’s hypocrisy. The candidate had in fact campaigned as a champion of family values, often posing with his wife and using the hashtag #happyfamily. “I don’t care what sexuality people have,” Pavlensky said, “but he wants to be head of Paris and he’s lying to the voters.” Clearly, the poor man was shocked, shocked by political mores — lying to the citizens! — so different from those of his home country.
The reality is more complicated, as befits a whacko known for bizarre stunts passed off as art. From 2012 to 2017, Pavlensky’s “performances,” purportedly to protest the treatment of dissident groups, included sewing his lips together, nailing his scrotum to the ground in Moscow’s Red Square, cutting off an earlobe before a psychiatric clinic, and setting fire to the doors of the Lubyanka building, headquarters of the FSB security agency. Shortly after arriving in Paris, he set fire to the front of an agency of the Banque de France in Place de la Bastille. This last caper got him a year’s prison sentence, which he didn’t serve due to time in pretrial detention.
Who might be the lady to whom Griveaux had sent the crotch shots was Paris’s favorite guessing game until it slowly emerged that she was — guess who? — none other than Pavlensky’s paramour. Alexandra de Taddeo is a comely 29-year-old Paris law student who approached Griveaux via social networks in spring 2018, while he was still Macron’s spokesman, ostensibly to discuss politics. She soon gave the online conversation a romantic turn. He took the bait, at one point sexting on Messenger that life with his wife and three children was like being in prison. She abruptly ended the liaison after a single tryst at her apartment, but not without carefully saving the views of his anatomy on her computer for over a year and a half. She took up openly with Pavlensky, who used her material when the time was ripe to bring down Griveaux. The two were arrested shortly thereafter for invasion of privacy; they risk two years in prison and a $70,000 fine.
The new guessing game now titillating Paris dinner parties is whether it’s a case of revenge porn or a well-executed sting operation. On the face of it, revenge seems an unlikely motive, there being no indication that de Taddeo and Griveaux ever had more than a brief encounter. It was sufficient, though, to sucker him into a honey trap, especially since he was naïve enough to misbehave in her bedroom, perfect for secret filming. The expert timing of the material’s release, one month before the Paris vote, was obviously chosen to destroy Griveaux politically, leave the president’s party in disarray, and humiliate Macron personally — all signs of a classic kompromat operation of the sort well known to Vladimir Putin from his days as head of Russian intelligence. And it was not so long ago that media like Russia Today and Sputnik, both under the Kremlin’s thumb, spread rumors about Macron’s sexuality during his 2017 presidential campaign.
All this is pure speculation at this point, of course. Such a destabilizing attack would show rank ingratitude on the part of Putin after Macron’s fawning attempt at a rapprochement with Russia. Right after his election, in May 2017, he began laying on the flattery, inviting Putin to the palace of Versailles for a three-star Alain Ducasse luncheon followed by five hours of friendly discussion. Again last August there were smiles all around as Macron received Putin at his lavish Riviera summer residence, saying he wanted a Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. He surprised even Putin by declaring that Russia is now politically liberal.
But in a telling turnabout, Macron changed his tone the day after Pavlensky and de Taddeo were arrested. Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference on February 15, Macron warned Western leaders that Russia will continue to try to destabilize democracies, spreading disinformation through private actors or proxies using deep-fake technologies. Simple coincidence, or had a sting stung?
Stung, in any case, is the French classe politique, with many fearing this is the end of the country’s usual indifference to sexual peccadillos, of pretending that private behavior is irrelevant when it comes to judging a public figure’s fitness for office. From the monarchy with its royal mistresses to today, French heads of state have been expected to dally. President Felix Faure died with a smile on his face in 1899 as he clutched his mistress’s head to his lap at the Élysée Palace. François Mitterrand kept a second family at taxpayer expense; Jacques Chirac was fondly known as “three minutes, shower included”; and François Hollande provoked only guffaws when photographed sneaking out for a midnight tryst.
So if a married politician can’t even expose himself online without causing a fuss, what is the world coming to? Many commentators declared firmly it must be the virus of “American puritanism” infecting French public life. Alain Duhamel, the dean of political analysts, warned darkly that “Clearly we have turned a corner. Welcome to the USA! Using a man’s private life against him is what’s worst in American politics.” Pundits chimed in to denounce the threat of “Americanization.” The head of research at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations explained that the whole regrettable process began in the early 2000s when political morality began to raise its ugly head in France. “A form of puritanism similar to that of the United States is emerging in the country of Choderlos de Laclos and Voltaire,” he said, citing two favorite 18th-century literary libertines. Politicians’ private lives could now be fair game.
Macron, as usual, has hunkered down and said nothing publicly. Meanwhile, politicians of all stripes are comically running for cover. As one man, they are righteously calling the leaked material everything from an abomination to an outright threat to democracy and the traditional French values everyone holds dear. The revulsion was palpable on the part of the LREM party leader, Stanislas Guerini, who called on every red-blooded Frenchman to resist the American onslaught. In a French version of They Shall Not Pass, he declaimed, “We must collectively be responsible and say: not here, not in France!” The danger was dire, said Le Monde, representing nothing less than “a fatal erosion of democratic life.”
Nowhere is Griveaux criticized for his indecency, for ruining his family’s happiness, jeopardizing his party’s chance of taking Paris, and of making France, again, a moral laughingstock. No one considers whether a man’s private actions reveal his judgment, character, probity, and trustworthiness, and whether these might be important in a candidate for public responsibilities. When I raise such questions with French acquaintances, I get a blank stare. I should have known. As Mark Twain also noted, “I suppose French morality is not of that strait-laced description which is shocked at trifles.”
Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator’s Paris correspondent. His latest book is Jean Gabin: The Actor Who Was France (McFarland).