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PARIS â€” France used to be the country where presidents could hide illegitimate children in plain sight, politicians could pursue multiple love affairs and nobody printed what everyone knew.
But the French are getting a taste for reality TV shows featuring politicians â€”Â a sign their private lives have long ceased to be a no-go zone in France.
The TV show â€œAn Intimate Ambitionâ€ follows several politicians in their daily lives, with long heart-to-heart interviews. In this Sundayâ€™s episode, viewers discover far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen gardening, the Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo riding her bicycle and former minister Rachida Dati with her boxing gloves on. Â
Le Pen also discloses that she has a female flatmate.
The relatively benign piece of news raised enough speculation that a National Rally heavyweight felt he had to clear the air and confirm they were just longtime friends. The living arrangement is part of Le Penâ€™s â€œunconventionalâ€ lifestyle, he told a group of reporters.
â€œNo men in this house, even my cats are female,â€ Le Pen jokingly tells host Karine Le Marchand in the show, according to gossipy magazine Gala.
American producers would be struck by the almost endearing amateurism of the show, which takes its cue from Oprah Winfreyâ€™s titillating tell-all interviews. Think soft-focus close-ups of candles and family portraits, guests sinking into sofas jammed with pillows and politicians opening up gingerly about their childhoods.
But for France, this is relatively new territory.
â€œItâ€™s the Americanization of the private lives of politicians,â€ says Gaspard Gantzer, a former adviser to ex-president FranÃ§ois Hollande â€” himself a victim of the French mediaâ€™s newfound taste for political private life gossip. â€œ[Former President] ValÃ©ry Giscard dâ€™Estaing posed with his daughter for a campaign photo. But such episodes were sporadic and rare.â€
The show, hosted by journalist Karine Le Marchand, started ahead of the 2017 presidential elections and is fast becoming a right of passage for French presidential candidates.
In 2016, it helped turbo-drive the presidential campaign of former Prime Minister FranÃ§ois Fillon, who was struggling to shake off his image as the ex-President Nicolas Sarkozyâ€™s drab wingman.
Many today feel itâ€™s no longer possible for a politician to resist putting his life on display.
â€œYou have to exist on social media, on popular TV shows, and whether you think itâ€™s a good thing or not, itâ€™s the way politics is going,â€ said a Socialist heavyweight about the decision of the Socialist presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo to take part in the show. â€œBut you have to get people to talk about you in the best way possible.â€
A risky business
But just as everyone is doubtful about what â€œAn Intimate Ambitionâ€ says about the state of politics, everyone plans to tune in.
Sundayâ€™s episode takes a look at the lives of five female politicians, including three candidates for next yearâ€™s presidential election. Le Marchand says she wants to focus on women and the glass ceiling in French politics, but many viewers will be watching to find out how the half lives.
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â€œIt shows [Le Pen] as a normal human being who lives in a normal house in the suburbs,â€ the National Rally official said. â€œA lot of people think she lives in a cave full of Nazis.â€
But as many politicians have found out, using oneâ€™s private life as campaign material is risky.
â€œIt can always backfire when you do it and it gives journalists a license to look at your private life more closely,â€ said Gantzer, recalling how Fillon put his family on display and was then caught up in a scandal involving fake jobs for his wife.
But for others, more public scrutiny is a welcome trend.
â€œBeyond measures and campaign manifestos, itâ€™s important to know whether the lives of politicians are coherent with their policies,â€ says FranÃ§ois Cornut-Gentille, a conservative MP from Les RÃ©publicains.
For Cornut-Gentille, the downfall of popular Socialist Dominique Strauss-Kahn shows greater scrutiny is not â€œvoyeurismâ€ but necessary to safeguard the state.
The ex-International Monetary Fund chiefâ€™s arrest over allegations of sexual assault in New York in May 2011 ended his political career at a time when he was considered a potential presidential front-runner. Charges were later dropped, but Strauss-Kahn reached a settlement with his accuser in a civil lawsuit.
â€œWith his lifestyle, and beyond the questions of morality, he would have quickly found himself in the control of foreign secret services if he had been elected,â€ Cornut-Gentille said.
But French politics is still rife with areas where journalists hesitate over what should appear in print.
In September, the French glossy magazine Paris Match published a photo of presidential hopeful Eric Zemmour in the arms of his political adviser and campaign director Sarah Knafo, without mentioning they were in a relationship. A married man, Zemmour is running a pro-family, conservative campaign ahead of Aprilâ€™s vote.
Zemmourâ€™s supporters say his private life will not affect his campaign, but itâ€™s unclear whether that will be tenable as the political pressure heats up.
Needless to say, taking part in â€œAn Intimate Ambitionâ€ would certainly be complicated.