The Law of Privacy in the United States and France: One President's Impeachable Offense Is Another's Invasion of Privacy

By Eko, Lyombe | Communications and the Law, December 2000 | Go to article overview
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The Law of Privacy in the United States and France: One President's Impeachable Offense Is Another's Invasion of Privacy

Eko, Lyombe, Communications and the Law

The historic trial and acquittal of U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton, by the U.S. Senate,(1) subsequent to his equally historic impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with a sexual harassment suit and a sexual relationship he had with an intern, Monica Lewinsky,(2) was a major mass media stow around the world. As a result of a confluence of several historical, religious, and cultural factors, the mass media and the American political establishment transformed the Clinton/Lewinsky relationship into the biggest sex scandal in the history of the American presidency, a scandal which affected American law, politics, religion, mass media, culture, and workplace.(3) Not only was the Lewinsky scandal the top U.S. stow of 1998, it was among the top ten media stories in most parts of the world.(4) Clinton's impeachment and trial were the culmination of legal actions,(5) partisan political maneuvers replete with religious overtones,(6) and sensational mass media revelations.(7)

The handling of the Clinton/Lewinsky(8) affair by the American mass media and political establishment reflects the unique sociopolitical culture of the United States. This uniqueness becomes evident when the scandal is compared and contrasted with a similar extramarital relationship, a sexual "affair"(9) involving the former president of France, Francois Mitterrand.

The "affaire Paris-Match" and "affaire Gubler" actually were two intertwined scandals, one involving Mitterrand's long-running extramarital relationship, and the other a successful cover-up of the gravity of his prostrate cancer. The so-called Paris-Match affair was triggered by the publication, in the celebrity picture magazine Paris-Match, of surreptitious pictures of Mitterrand leaving a Parisian restaurant arm in arm with a teenage girl with whom he had just dined in secret. The magazine stated that the girl was Mitterrand's daughter from an ongoing extramarital relationship.

The reaction of the French political and media establishments to the revelation and the picture was outrage--at Paris-Match--for invading the privacy of the president. Mitterrand's relationship, which had started years before he became president and continued throughout his presidency, did not become a scandal. The "Gubler affair" occurred two years later, after Mitterrand had died of prostrate cancer. Shortly after the death of the president, his former personal physician, Claude Gubler, published a book, Le Grand Secret (The Big Secret), in which he claimed that Mitterrand had lied to the French people about the gravity of his health problems. The physician said that the president had been incapacitated and unfit to govern France during the last two years of his second seven-year term.

The "Paris-Match" and "Gubler" affairs became inextricably linked when Mitterrand's "two families"(10)--his legal wife; Danielle, and their two children, his mistress, Anne Pingeot, and the daughter born of the relationship, Mazarine--jointly brought suit in a Parisian court against Gubler and Plon, the publisher of the book, for invasion of privacy and breach of doctor-patient confidentiality. The lower French courts found for Mitterrand's wife and mistress and banned the physician's book. The French Supreme Court affirmed.

In view of the strikingly different outcomes of the Clinton and Mitterrand "affairs" which involved essentially the same issues-extramarital relationships and lying--it is interesting to explore the legal, political, and cultural backgrounds that led to such contrasting reactions and outcomes. Why did the Clinton/Lewinsky affair become a major historical and political scandal that deeply affected American society and provided a "shock to the [world] body politic,"(11) while the Mitterrand/Paris-Match/Gubler affair had very little or no political, legal, and historical significance in France?

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The Law of Privacy in the United States and France: One President's Impeachable Offense Is Another's Invasion of Privacy


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