Reviews | Anatomy of a Parisian sex scandal

PARIS – Like everyone in France, when I learned that Benjamin Griveaux was quitting the race for mayor of Paris because someone had uploaded his sex tape, I immediately looked for the tape.

When I couldn’t find it, a friend suspiciously agreed to send me a link. It was a video selfie of a man masturbating. You could hear him breathe but you couldn’t see his face.

I looked at it and then said, “I understand why people have sex in the dark.”

But what I didn’t understand at first was why Mr Griveaux dropped out of the mayoral race – the first round of which is March 15. The tape was humiliating, but he hadn’t broken any laws. Many French politicians have survived sex scandals. He was behind in the polls, but losing seemed better than giving up.

I’m not the only one wondering what happened. Mr. Griveaux, 42, was part of the group of hyper-educated young arrivals who helped President Emmanuel Macron found a new political party that would turn France into “the start-up nation”.

In the weeks following his departure from the race, the country plunged into a national drama that was both soap opera and psychoanalysis. Are the French becoming like the Americans, who punish public officials for private sins? How did the attention-seeking Russian artist who released the tape manage to disrupt a French election? Who is the attractive 29-year-old woman at the center of the scandal, who appears to have laid both the Russian and Mr. Griveaux to bed?

To answer these questions, the magazines here have published soul-searching articles on everything from the possible Kremlin involvement (there is no evidence of this) to the sense of masturbation. They barely have the vocabulary to describe what’s going on: Writers awkwardly describe “sex tape” – sex tape – or use English terms like “revenge porn” and “the sextape”.

The whole story hardly makes sense: the artist, Piotr Pavlensky, who specializes in political protest stunts like laying naked and wrapped in barbed wire in front of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly (he titled the “Carcass” act), claims he wanted to denounce the candidate’s “hypocrisy”. When Mr. Griveaux opened his candidacy for mayor, he posed for Paris Match magazine with his pregnant wife, then announced the baby’s birth on Twitter with the hashtag #happyfamily.

But most French voters didn’t think that meant Mr. Griveaux was strictly monogamous, nor were they outraged to find out that he wasn’t. The public is fascinated by court gossip (“municipal erections”, a headline joked) but allergic to moralization. The view here has long been that everyone – even politicians – is entitled to a walled-in and practically sacred part of their life that can be full of contradictions.

Breaking down that wall is illegal here – Mr Pavlensky and his girlfriend face two years in prison and a fine of 60,000 euros for invading privacy and disseminating sexual images of someone without their consent. It also seems pointless to “Americanize” French morality when the United States has a president whose supporters ignore his inclinations. And the videos are an existential violation. (One analyst quoted essayist Henry de Montherlant, who said “You should never say everything, not even to a stone.”) Even Mr. Griveaux’s political enemies condemned the way he was shot.

However, smartphones and social media have complicated France’s long-standing standards on sex and politics. It is one thing to learn that presidents like François Mitterrand had a child in love or that Jacques Chirac’s extramarital affairs would have lasted “five minutes, shower included”. It’s another to click on a link and witness a live sex act.

In the torrid timeline that is emerging, it is clear that social networks have animated the Griveaux affair from the start. According to the French press, in May 2018, a graduate student in her twenties, Alexandra de Taddeo, started leaving political comments and book suggestions on Instagram for Mr. Griveaux, then spokesperson for the government of Mr. Macron.

Mr Griveaux responded, a flirtation developed, and at the end of the month they were exchanging snapshots and sexy videos via Facebook Messenger. She saved some of them. The two appear to have met in person only once, in August, in Madame de Taddeo’s Paris apartment. In an interview with French television on Sunday, Ms. de Taddeo called their meeting “disappointing”; other accounts say that she either didn’t like him physically or found the reunion offensively brief.

Ms. de Taddeo may have seemed like a reasonable risk to a prudent politician: She came from a middle-class French family and already had a master’s degree in government and law. She then did an internship at UNESCO.

What Mr Griveaux did not know was that, according to reports, Ms de Taddeo also entered into a correspondence with Mr Pavlensky, who was granted asylum in France in 2017 and was already in prison for having lit a fire in a branch. from the central bank of France (he titled this one “Lighting”). Apparently he and Mme de Taddeo exchanged French erotic poetry and she advised him to read Tocqueville.

It is not known whether Mr Pavlensky urged Ms de Taddeo to contact Mr Griveaux. But they became an object shortly after the Russian’s release from prison. And last November, Mr. Pavlensky, who speaks hesitant French, launched a French-language website called pornopolitique, which solicited embarrassing information about politicians (“It’s our only way out of the swamps of Puritanism and l ‘hypocrisy!’ explained a manifesto).

For the site, he and Ms. de Taddeo interviewed Cicciolina, the Italian erotic actress turned politician. Ms de Taddeo recently made the cover of Paris Match, wearing red lipstick and blowing hair, while Mr Pavlensky is handcuffed on the sidewalk in front of her. (She claims he released the video without her knowing it. On the radio, her parents insisted that she was not an anarchist and that her boyfriend “is not our cup of tea.” )

While Mr. Griveaux’s right to record sex videos is not in issue, his spectacularly bad judgment in sending them to a stranger is. “Can we imagine General de Gaulle filming his genitals in Super 8? Asked a commentator.

And yet, observers were also amazed that Mr. Griveaux had not only resisted the scandal, in the French tradition, especially since the videos quickly disappeared from the web. “You can see he really is a newbie,” French comedian Wary Nichen said, adding that a more skillful politician would have simply said: “What an indignity!” and that the band “wasn’t me”.

Let’s see what will happen next time. Perhaps another reason that members of the French establishment immediately rose to condemn the episode is because they fear they will fall victim to similar tactics. In a country where you are supposed to keep secrets, hardly anyone wants to change the rules.

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