PARIS—As residents and tourists in this most romantic city prepare to raise a toast to tales of love this Valentine’s Day, a more sordid story has rocked the political establishment.
Married mayoral candidate Benjamin Griveaux, 42, allegedly was caught with his pants down or, more precisely, his manhood blasted across the internet, which made a very bad fit with the campaign he had run extolling family values.
Griveaux, a close ally of French President Emmanuel Macron and formerly the government’s spokesperson, helped found the president’s La République en Marche (LREM) party and was Macron’s favorite to win election as mayor of Paris next month, even though he has been trailing conservative Rachida Dati and the Socialist incumbent, Mayor Anne Hidalgo.
Then suddenly, on Friday morning Macron’s golden boy abruptly withdrew from the race following the leak of racy screenshots and videos that depict the married Griveaux having sexually explicit interactions with an unidentified young woman. Among the suggestive images are videos that purport to be of Griveaux’s genitals.
“Can you resend the video from yesterday,” reads one of the messages allegedly from Griveaux to his lover. Apparently he was impressed by her breasts. "What a chest!" he allegedly texted.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Political sex scandals have flourished in France and elsewhere for as long as there have been politicians. America’s many such tawdry controversies merely date back to Alexander Hamilton’s 18th-century dangerous liaison with Maria Reynolds—both were married at the time—and beyond.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in the early ’90s ranks among the most infamous, of course, resulting in impeachment proceedings against the former U.S. president, and collective bewilderment and ridicule in France, where the private lives of political figures have been seen as separate and having no bearing on a statesman’s professional capabilities.
But even here, that’s been changing.
Who can forget, for instance, the hilarious stories of Macron’s predecessor, President François Hollande, zipping around on a scooter en route to see his actress mistress Julie Gayet? Or the fact that onetime French President François Mitterrand not only had a longtime lover but a not-so-secret daughter with the other woman?
The difference between the two countries, however, lies in what extent such extra-curricular dalliances can hinder or even end a politician’s career. The fall-out following such revelations has been historically harsher in the U.S., but the rise of #MeToo has seen a shift of attitudes in this country and led to greater scrutiny of powerful men’s sexual transgressions. Added to the question of power, morality, and prurience here, there’s also the question of taste and—a sin at least as old as the court of Louis XIV—ridicule.
Today, thanks to social media, the lurid details of such escapades may be broadcast for all the world to see.
Remember Anthony Weiner?
For those in need of a refresher, Weiner, like Griveaux, was a young, ambitious statesman who was fond of sexting women he wasn’t married to. Even more brazen than Griveaux, Weiner took to Twitter to send pictures of his genitals to his intended targets. The scandal cost the aptly named New York congressman his political career and even landed him in prison several years later for sending suggestive messages to a 15-year-old girl.
While Griveaux is not alleged to have done anything illegal, the outing of the salacious messages (crudely speaking, dick pics, or videos) was nonetheless enough to put an end to his mayoral ambitions.
Particularly damning were his earlier statements regarding marriage and family, which seemed to be negated in the tamer screenshots of his textual intercourse.
“Are you over there with your family, or are you not yet a prisoner of your spouse and children?” reads one message allegedly attributed to Griveaux.
“No, I’m too young. I am free,” the interlocutor, presumably a young woman, responds.
Two videos that allegedly show Griveaux masturbating are included in the post, evoking the equally creepy but less animated crotch shots Weiner sent over Twitter nearly a decade ago.
In an odd twist, Pyotr Pavlenski, a controversial Russian performance artist, has taken credit for publishing the materials, telling the French weekly Libération that he had received them from someone who had had a consensual relationship with Griveaux, suggesting that it was the recipient of the messages herself who was Griveaux’s mayoral undoing.
“He is someone who is always playing up family values, who says he wants to be the mayor of families and always cites as examples his wife and children. But he does the opposite,” Pavlenski said, as quoted by Libération.
At a press conference in Paris on Friday morning, Griveaux formally announced his resignation from the mayoral race, while seeming to suggest that he was the victim of a smear campaign. However, he did not deny having sent the messages.
“A website and social networks have launched vile attacks concerning my private life,” Griveaux said. “My family does not deserve this.”
“For more than a year, my family and I have been subjected to defamatory remarks, lies, rumors, anonymous attacks, the revelation of stolen private conversations and death threats,” he said.
President Macron has yet to release an official statement about Griveaux’s resignation, and it is not yet known what, if any impact, the scandal will have on LREM and the president (apart from obvious embarrassment). However, other politicians, including rivals, have been quick to defend Griveaux, calling the leaked messages “an abomination” and “a threat to democracy.”
“I send my complete and total support to Benjamin Griveaux and his family during this ordeal,” Cédric Villani, a fellow mayoral candidate and onetime rival of Griveaux, said in a tweet. “The attack he has been subject to is a serious threat to our democracy.”
Former far-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon called the leak “odious,” and French author Maxime Tandonnet also denounced it—as well as what he believes to be a mentality of newfound “American puritanism” in the country.
“In France, American puritanism has taken hold,” he wrote in a scathing editorial in the right-leaning daily, Le Figaro. “Worse: the negation of private life and the banalization of global lynching.”
Maybe so, but 82-year-old journalist Michèle Cotta offered a more pragmatic assessment of this morning’s revelations.
“Benjamin Griveaux fell into the oldest trap in the world: sex,” she wrote in Le Point, adding that the mayoral hopeful had “no excuse.”
Citing the news site Médiapart, Cotta claimed that the photos had been taken back in 2018.
“We can’t say that he was not conscious of what he was doing,” she wrote. “Benjamin Griveaux couldn’t have been unaware of the personal risk he was taking, nor of the risk this posed to his political party and to the president.”
Griveaux, the octogenarian argued, was reckless and stupid for leaving an online trail of his extramarital dalliances.
“Everyone has known for a long time what awaits these kinds of videos and photos once they are put online in whatever form they take,” she explained. “They will be made public by an indelicate partner or one tempted by revenge.”
It’s advice that Anthony Weiner and other disgraced statesmen would have done well to heed.