The “Don’t ask, don’t tell” entente between French politicians and the public has been so sacrosanct that, to this day, political campaigns undertake no opposition research on their own candidate.
“When François Mitterrand was president, we all knew he had an illegitimate child and no one said anything,” recalls veteran political journalist Olivier Mazerolle. “It wasn’t because of fear. We just didn’t think it was important.”
That may have changed as of February 14, when Benjamin Griveaux withdrew his bid to become mayor of Paris after “videos of a sexual nature” (read: dick pics and filmed frottage sent to a consenting mistress) were leaked online. “France once had an attachment to ideological debate,” Mazerolle mourns. “But now there’s only interest in little things.” (Mazerolle is too dignified to make reference here to Griveaux’s output, but Air Mail couldn’t help but notice upon watching that a little thing is one problem Griveaux doesn’t have.) We understand his disappointment, except the whole affair, especially the trolls who set it off, is just so damned entertaining. Sorry, France.
In 2012, when François Hollande was photographed by paparazzi scurrying off for a late-night tryst with his secret girlfriend Julie Gayet, catching politicians in a humiliating act started catching on here. (He was being driven by a chauffeur on the back of a three-wheeled scooter! In a silly-looking helmet! With no security!) But will this new leakocracy really upend the cozy relationship between politicians, the media, and the public?
The tell-all memoir of Hollande’s spurned “official” girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, Merci pour Ce Moment (Thank You for This Moment), which was published after her very public breakup with Hollande following news of his affair with Gayet, sold more than 600,000 copies. This is a massive number for France’s readership. The populace is already a willing consumer of scandal, but the political and media classes have traditionally preferred to downplay it, whenever possible. The old order still seems to be holding, despite cracks to the foundations exacerbated by the endless jackhammer of social media. So far, at least: within a day of the news breaking, on February 14, the spotlight moved swiftly from Griveaux’s infidelity to near-universal opprobrium over the leak.
One could argue that Griveaux made himself a target. The former member of the center-left Parti Socialiste who joined Emmanuel Macron’s centrist revolution, La République en Marche, as soon as it was declared, Griveaux left his gig as the Élysée Palace’s spokesman to run as L.R.E.M.’s candidate for mayor of Paris. He only once reached No. 2 in the polls—he was never much loved, as the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey told news network France 24 on February 14, the day the scandal broke. “[Griveaux] was always seen as incredibly arrogant, a difficult guy to deal with, Macron’s baby … stupidly appointed to be the mayoral candidate, doing terribly against two women.” Griveaux campaigned on family-first reforms, and used his own domestic bliss as a selling point. Julia et Paris: Les Deux Amours de Benjamin Griveaux was the headline of Paris Match’s puff piece about the candidate, his wife, and their three children.
The hypocrisy was apparently too much for Pyotr Pavlensky, an exiled rough-and-tumble political performance artist from Russia who leaked the video and images nearly three weeks ago on his brand-new, now disappeared Web site, pornopolitique.com. The material in question was two years old, sent to Pavlensky by Alexandra de Taddeo, a 29-year-old law student who was dating Griveaux after the two connected on social media. (Pavlensky now has that honor. Looking at photographs of the haggard artist versus those of the suave political operative, it would seem de Taddeo doesn’t really have a type.)
A Messy Inheritance
One might ask why Griveaux would want the job. Whoever the next mayor will be—the smart money is on incumbent Anne Hidalgo or the conservative Gaullist candidate, Les Républicains’ Rachida Dati, minister of justice under Sarkozy—she will inherit a lulu. Paris is undergoing a housing crisis, buried in expensive infrastructure works, and militants from all over the country now coalesce here on a weekly basis to protest and, often, vandalize. There are herds of rats running all over town as well as a massive pollution problem, not to mention the logistical nightmare of the 2024 Olympics looming on the horizon.
The reason for the attraction despite the considerable hurtles, says Mazerolle, is simple. “It’s a pathway to power. Paris mayors are often the first line of opposition against the current presidential administration,” which makes it easier to make one’s name. And then there are the lucrative opportunities: “The mayor’s job is to maintain Paris’s prestige and attract investors to the city.” Griveaux’s job was also to stake out friendly territory for Macron on the municipal level while satisfying his own ambitions. So much for that.
As everyone with a legacy-media megaphone repudiates the intrusion into Griveaux’s private life, the energy has now shifted to investigating the leakers. This is where the fun really begins. Much to the dismay of anyone seeking a dignified exchange, the cast of characters at the center of the leak is a real trolls’ gallery. If in fact there is a revolution in the offing, the provocateurs on its front lines will need to slick up a bit. The French have traditionally had far less tolerance for clowns and cowboys in the halls of power than Americans do.
Let’s start with Joachim Son-Forget, the first person to post the link to Pavlensky’s site on Twitter, on February 13. One of Macron’s big appeals was to bring into politics people with private-sector experience—a rarity in a country where most technocrats actually go to school for administration. Be careful what you wish for. Son-Forget, a neuroscientist by training and French citizen of Korean descent who lives in Switzerland, won a seat in the National Assembly, France’s lower congressional house, representing French people living overseas in Switzerland and Lichtenstein. At the time, Macron said to France Inter, “He’s a great guy, close to a genius.”
The French have traditionally had far less tolerance for clowns and cowboys in the halls of power than Americans do.
We can’t speak for his lab work, but Son-Forget certainly has a knack for attracting attention. A Twitter addict with nearly 65,000 followers, in 2018 he took to the forum to criticize the makeup of Green Party senator Esther Benbassa. When he was called out for sexism, he just reposted and reposted her picture. Fifty times in an hour and a half. He later claimed to the newspaper Libération that he was trying to “faire le buzz,” using principles of cognitive psychology. He’s accused Donald Trump of “cerebral incontinence” as well as the traditional kind. “DON’T INSULT MY COUNTRY DOTARD, LA FRANCE KISSES YOUR ASS,” he wrote.
Due to his antics, Son-Forget has been bounced from Macron’s party and now stands unaffiliated in the French Congress. He’s talking about forming his own party, which will challenge the moral laxity of the elites. Not because he has an ax to grind with La République en Marche, who expelled him, but because he really cares! When Son-Forget debuted Pavlensky’s link, he included this note: “I hope these sexual, distressing videos incriminating Benjamin Griveaux and a young woman are denounced by the person in question and his team, because such a defamation would be extremely serious in the campaign for Paris.” Thanks for your concern. As the scandal simmers, Son-Forget has taken to posting boudoir photos of himself online, to defuse the power of future leakers, he says. (Honestly, if you do one thing as a result of this scandal, and don’t have too many hang-ups about being part of the problem, do give @sonforget a look. We simply don’t have the space to describe it all here.)
Before seeking asylum in France, Pavlensky made his own buzz by nailing his scrotum to Red Square and setting fire to the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service. He applied for asylum in January 2017, and had it granted with seemingly record timing, three months later. Once safely in the arms of liberté, égalité, and fraternité, Pavlensky lit a branch of the Banque de France on fire, to protest the fact that an institution with roots in the court of Louis XIV would deign to have an address on the Place de la Bastille. Are you still fighting the power on behalf of the common man with references it takes a degree to understand?
Before seeking asylum in France, Pavlensky made his own buzz by nailing his scrotum to Red Square and setting fire to the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Galia Ackerman, a historian, translator, and expert on post-Soviet Russia, finds this all a bit puzzling. “Clearly he doesn’t speak French well,” she notes, as we all did after listening to a string of televised interviews with Pavlensky the day the scandal broke. And yet the text that accompanied Griveaux’s material was quite well written. “When you arrive in a country and you don’t even know the language, it takes years to learn who all the local political players are. You’re obliged to listen to people around you, whom you trust.” Ackerman doesn’t suspect Putin’s hand here but a local one. “He fell under the influence of radicals of his own type, but acting against the French state and Macronism, and he could be used as a battering ram to de-stabilize the country even more.”
Ackerman has other questions about de Taddeo. A law student from a very comfortable family in Metz, a city near the German border, de Taddeo speaks Russian, has published a book on Russian politics in the Arctic, and has promoted Russian artists on Obliques, a radio show about culture that airs on a Protestant news network. (Protestant as in religion, not protesting as in politics.) There’s nothing wrong with any of that in itself. But, as Ackerman notes, “we’re in a context where there has been a lot of Russian interference in elections in the U.S., France, and with the Catalonian-independence referendum, plus all the fake accounts. And in this context a young woman, God knows how, makes contact with Macron’s spokesman and keeps records of the videos he sent, and then they come out at a very opportune moment … And this person has links to Russia? Well, we have the right to ask questions. I’m not saying she’s working for the secret police, but I hope there will be deeper investigation.” From February 15, de Taddeo was held in police custody for five days on suspicion of disseminating revenge porn, which could get her up to two years in jail and a fine of nearly $65,000.
Pavlensky was also held for questioning and has subsequently been released. (The couple that trolls together …) But unlike de Taddeo, it’s for having allegedly knifed two people at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by his lawyer, Juan Branco, who is very, very outraged at this whole matter and wants you all to know about it.
Branco has been making the TV rounds, claiming Pavlensky was being held without counsel, because he asked for Branco to represent him and he was refused. Not so fast. The French bar, which has just opened an investigation into Branco for potential conflict of interest, replies that while everyone has the right to legal defense in France, there is no absolute right to pick yours, and Branco, who threw the party, was a witness.
The most dangerous place to be in France right now is between a camera and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young lawyer. Branco has an impeccably posh pedigree that he has worked very hard to make people forget. His father, Paulo, is a successful film producer, and Branco counts among his family friends such national figures as Catherine Deneuve. He got his undergraduate degree from Sciences Po while pursuing a simultaneous master’s in literature, philosophy, and law at the Sorbonne. At first he was happy to work within the elite: he founded a small think tank for Dominique de Villepin, prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, and helped out as a media consultant for François Hollande’s presidential campaign.
The most dangerous place to be in France right now is between a camera and the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young lawyer.
But in 2015, it all changed. Branco, who has advocated for absolute digital freedom since 2009, when France passed its restrictive HADOPI law against piracy, went to work for Julian Assange, joining a large team helping to negotiate his exile. (Despite Branco’s efforts, France gave it a pass.) Next came a high-profile defense of far-left rabble-rouser Jean-Luc Mélenchon against the minister of the interior in 2017, and then a run for a municipal post in the rough Seine-Saint-Denis county as part of Mélenchon’s party, La France Insoumise. Branco lost; maybe the locals weren’t buying it from someone who had cut his teeth at expensive cafés on the Boulevard Saint-Germain?
Branco took a step up in notoriety with his “anti-system” tract Crépuscule, first published online in 2018, where it was downloaded 100,000 times and then printed on paper in 2019, where it sold an additional 70,000 copies in the first few days of its release. The gilets jaunes erupted at the same time, and there was Branco on the front lines of demonstrations, advising the movement and working with one of its eight official representatives, the conspiracy theorist and “anti-Macronist” Maxime Nicollet. When, during a December 19 demonstration, the gilets jaunes busted down the door of Griveaux’s office while he was meeting with journalists from Le Monde, Branco claimed to be right there with the protesters.
There are some who postulate that Branco’s rancor for Griveaux, as the right hand of Macron, stems from a high-school rivalry with Gabriel Attal, now a prominent L.R.E.M. speechwriter and ministerial adviser. While at the elite private school École Alsacienne, Branco co-created Skyblog, a bulletin board for commenting on girls’ appearances. (Sound familiar?) He claimed at the time a fellow student tried to get him kicked out of school for it. Fourteen years later, in Crépuscule, he names that person as Attal, whom he then goes on to out as gay.
Thanks to all this nuttiness, France’s once restrained political culture is in (Carlos) danger. From crisis comes opportunity. American consultants: after you’ve picked up the pieces of your own exploded heads, the flight to Charles de Gaulle is only seven and a half hours from Dulles. Macron may have shown digital sophistication by laying disinformation traps for hackers when G.R.U. operatives broke into his campaign in 2015. But his confrères are clearly not all schooled in the new dark arts. There’s euros on the table, boys.
Alexandra Marshall is an Editor at Large for Air MaiL based in Paris