A Private Affair?

Can a public figure have a private life? Recent events in three countries have highlighted the importance of this question.

In the French presidential election, both candidates tried to keep their domestic life separate from their campaign. Ségolène Royal is not married to François Hollande, the father of her four children. When asked whether they were a couple, Royal replied, “Our lives belong to us.” Similarly, in response to rumors that President-elect Nicholas Sarkozy’s wife had left him, a spokesman for Sarkozy said, “That’s a private matter.”

The French have a long tradition of respecting the privacy of their politicians’ personal lives, and French public opinion is more broad-minded than in the United States, where an unwed mother of four would have no chance of being nominated for the presidency by a major party. Indeed, last month, Randall Tobias, the top foreign aid adviser in the US State Department, resigned after acknowledging that he had used an escort service described as providing “high-end erotic fantasy” – although Tobias said he only had a massage.

In Britain, Lord John Browne, the chief executive who transformed BP from a second-tier European oil company into a global giant, resigned after admitting he had lied in court about the circumstances in which he had met a gay companion (apparently, he met him through a male escort agency). In resigning, he said that he had always regarded his sexuality as a personal matter, and he was disappointed that a newspaper – The Mail on Sunday had made it public.