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When The Private Lives of Presidents Go Public

A few weeks ago as I was flipping through the channels of French TV, I came across a documentary called ‘La maladie du pouvoir’ (literally, ‘The power illness’). I figured this would be another French political documentary and wasn’t extremely interested, but I kept it on anyway.

The first hour of the documentary got me hooked: starting with Georges Pompidou (president from 1969-1974), the film basically recounted how several French presidents had been severely ill, terminally ill in some cases, and yet their illnesses were kept a secret from the public, and even the president’s families.

For Pompidou, the documentary showed how his failing health (due to blood cancer) was becoming more and more obvious in the fourth year of his presidency, but the Elysée (the French equivalent to the White House) continued to deny any rumors of illness. The last images showed Pompidou isolated, exhausted and very ill. His death was announced to a very surprised public, who thought he was ill, but did not realize the gravity of his illness.

After Pompidou, the even more surprising segment was on François Mitterrand (president from 1981-1995). Because of the public outcry at Pompidou’s death, Mitterrand promised to publish regular medical reports to the public every six months, to prove he was in good health. Within months of his election, Mitterrand learned from his personal doctor that he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones and lower pelvis.

Rather than admitting Mitterrand to a hospital, he chose to spend the next 7 years of his presidency fighting the cancer in secret, with risky steroid treatments administered in the dead of the night by his personal physician. Mitterrand’s doctor followed him everywhere, and his cancer was considered a ‘state secret.’ Even Mitterrand’s family was kept out of the loop.  

Miraculously, his cancer responded to treatment and he was able to complete his seven year term as president, all without anyone knowing. Then, without consulting his physician, Mitterrand decided to run again for president in 1988, even though he was still undergoing cancer treatment.

This story gets even more interesting: after Mitterrand’s death, his physician, Dr. Gubler, published a book called The Big Secret retelling the story of Mitterrand’s illness. Gubler’s book was promptly removed from all stores only two days after its release. He was then personally tried for « une intrusion particulièrement grave dans l'intimité de la vie privée et familiale du président» (a particularly grave intrusion into the private life of the president). He went to prison for four months, and his titles for several prestigious institutions (including the Légion d’Honneur) were revoked for life.

In more recent events, Nicolas Sarkozy (president from 2007-2012) has been in the news for his alleged involvement in what’s called the Bettencourt affair. Since 2010 there has been an investigation involving Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the l’Oréal company, who was thought to have helped illegally finance Sarkozy’s presidential campaign. This affair was mentioned in the press while Sarkozy was president, but because of France’s law of presidential immunity, Sarkozy could not be investigated further or tried until the end of his term.

In my opinion there are two major concepts at work here in the examples of these three former presidents: a sacred image of the state, and a good example, the epitome even, of the French respect for private life.

Examining further the idea of the sacred state, in a way Pompidou and Mitterrand were putting themselves and their own health behind the wellness of the state.  They believed the president should protect his/her image so that the public believes its elected official is the most capable, healthy individual possible to assume this job. It is understandable why they both chose to hide their health problems. The public surely would have reacted strongly if they had found out about the severity of both men’s illnesses. But this also means that it was not possible to show the president as human, that is, a person with flaws and restricted by the limits of his/her body, as we all are. The ‘health’ of the state was more important than their own physical health.

Sarkozy’s trial can also support this idea of a sacred state, it is the legal/governmental system itself which will not allow the president to be tried for anything not related to his function as president. This is to protect the president from any parties that could try to intimidate or manipulate him/her while in office, and also to allow the president to focus on affairs of the state.  
In terms of private life, the trial against Mitterrand’s personal physician (a man who was closer to Mitterrand than his own family, accompanying him to all political events) shows just how much the private life a president is considered confidential, even after his death.
In a similar way, presidential ‘immunity’ protects the president’s private life in a legal sense.
In general, private life in France is more protected and sheltered than in the United States, and this can be viewed at its epitome in the treatment of these different presidents, whose private lives are protected by the law. This is a very different mentality from the trial against President Clinton, or even President Obama wishing his wife a happy anniversary on television!  

And so, I’ll come back to where I started: I still find these anecdotes about Pompidou and Mitterrand fascinating in the sense that they were both able to hide a secret so enormous from an entire country. At the same time, it’s very disturbing to think that they were both so ill, and insisted on holding on to their positions. The evidence, though, speaks for itself: in France, you don’t mess with the private lives of presidents. 


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