A Salute to Sarkozy: In Defense of Privacy

We are so often subjected to the intimate details of this or that politician's marital life and rants by the likes of Heather Mills (repeatedly, on every TV and radio channel) that our confusion can be forgiven when someone stands up to prying questions of an interviewer -- or in Nicholas Sarkozy's case, walks out of an interview. The surprised expression on Leslie Stahl's face when Sarkozy fled a tête-à-tête for CBS at the Élysée after she pressed him with inquiries about his now ex-wife, Cecilia, reflects our growing belief that nothing in the lives of public figures is private anymore.

The segment was called "Sarko L'Americain," a title bestowed upon him by the French media for engaging in such American activities as jogging, hosting barbeques, greeting people informally, and standing for an official portrait in an Italian suit. Ironically however, Sarkozy's move was decidedly French.

The French are notoriously reticent when it comes to the private lives of their leaders. Francois Mitterand famously kept his mistress and illegitimate daughter in a mansion for 20 years until his death. The public's response? A collective shrug -- even though they had been footing the bill. According to Canadian journalists Jean-Benoit Nadeau and Julie Barlow, in 2001 Roland Dumas, the head of the Supreme Court in France was charged with corruption involving his mistress, and no interviewer dared ask Dumas' wife how she felt about her husband's affair.

When the Lewinsky scandal broke, all of France was asking "Why? What does this have to do with his job performance?" But instead of asking "why" Americans ask "why not?" Why not tell us more? A question which I answer with two words: OVER-SHARE. This is in fact such a thing, and it hurts the dignity of not just the individual, but the society as a whole as we become more and more inured to crass exposés.

Granted, Sarkozy courts the media frequently and has offered tidbits about his personal life throughout his political career, so I don't question Leslie Stahl's right to ask about an issue he had previously commented on. But Sarkozy should be commended for reminding the world that not everything is up for discussion. Although he didn't execute his exit with creativity and wit as one would imagine a Churchill-type doing, the move itself was elegant in its significance. There is, after all, dignity in privacy. So bravo, Sarko!