Anatomy of a Parisian Sex Scandal

Benjamin Griveaux ended his Paris mayoral campaign last month after a sex tape became public, a decision that left some French people puzzled. Credit Lionel Bonaventure/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Benjamin Griveaux ended his Paris mayoral campaign last month after a sex tape became public, a decision that left some French people puzzled. Credit Lionel Bonaventure/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Like everyone else in France, when I heard that Benjamin Griveaux was quitting the Paris mayor’s race because someone released his sex tape online, I immediately searched for the tape.

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

I watched it, then wrote back, “I understand why people have sex in the dark”.

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

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

In the weeks since he left the race, the country has plunged into a national drama that’s part soap opera, part psychoanalysis. Are the French becoming like 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’s the alluring 29-year-old woman at the center of the scandal, who seems to have bedded both the Russian and Mr. Griveaux?

To answer these questions, magazines here have run soul-searching features on everything from possible Kremlin involvement (there’s no proof of this) to the meaning of masturbation. They barely have the vocabulary to describe what’s happening: Writers awkwardly describe “enregistrements à caractère sexuel” — recordings of a sexual nature — or use English terms like “revenge porn” and “la sextape”.

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

But most French voters didn’t actually think that meant Mr. Griveaux was a strict monogamist, nor were they outraged to discover he wasn’t. The public is fascinated by court gossip (“erections municipals”, one headline joked) but allergic to moralizing. Here, the view has long been that all people — even politicians — were entitled to a walled-off, practically sacred part of their lives that may be full of contradictions.

Breaching that wall is against the law here — Mr. Pavlensky and his girlfriend face two years in prison and a 60,000 euro fine for infringement of privacy and distributing sexual images of someone without their consent. It also seems pointless to “Americanize” French morality when the United States has a president whose supporters shrug off his philandering. And the videos are an existential violation. (One analyst quoted the essayist Henry de Montherlant, who said “One should never say everything, not even to a stone”.) Even Mr. Griveaux’s political enemies condemned the way he was brought down.

However smartphones and social media have complicated France’s longstanding norms on sex and politics. It’s one thing to learn that presidents like François Mitterrand had a love child or that Jacques Chirac’s extramarital trysts supposedly lasted “five minutes, shower included”. It’s quite another to click a link and witness a live sexual act.

In the torrid chronology that’s now emerging, it’s clear that social media has driven l’affaire Griveaux from the start. According to French news reports, in May 2018 a 20-something graduate student, Alexandra de Taddeo, began leaving political comments and book suggestions on Instagram for Mr. Griveaux, then spokesman for Mr. Macron’s government.

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

Ms. de Taddeo may have seemed like a reasonable risk for a cautious politician: She came from a middle-class French family, and already had master’s degrees in government and law. She went on to do an internship at UNESCO.

What Mr. Griveaux didn’t know was that, according to reports, Ms. de Taddeo had also struck up a correspondence with Mr. Pavlensky, who was granted asylum in France in 2017 and was already in prison for staging a fire at a branch of France’s central bank (he titled this one “Lighting”). Apparently he and Ms. de Taddeo exchanged French erotic poetry and she advised him to read Tocqueville.

It’s unclear whether Mr. Pavlensky urged Ms. de Taddeo to contact Mr. Griveaux. But they became an item soon after the Russian’s release from prison. And last November, Mr. Pavlensky, who speaks halting French, started a French-language website called pornopolitique which solicited embarrassing material on politicians (“This is our only way out of the swamps of Puritanism and hypocrisy!” a manifesto explained.)

For the site, he and Ms. de Taddeo interviewed Cicciolina, the Italian erotic actress turned politician. Ms. de Taddeo recently graced the cover of Paris Match, with red lipstick and windblown hair, as Mr. Pavlensky is handcuffed on the pavement in front of her. (She claims he released the video without her knowledge. On the radio, her parents insisted that she’s no anarchist and that her boyfriend “isn’t our cup of tea”.)

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

And yet observers also marveled that Mr. Griveaux didn’t just weather the scandal, in the French tradition, especially since the videos soon disappeared from the web. “You can see he’s really a beginner”, said the French comedian Wary Nichen, adding that a more skilled politician would have just said, “What an indignity!” and that the tape “wasn’t me”.

Let’s see what happens next time. Another reason members of the French establishment instantly rose up to condemn the episode may be that they fear falling victim to similar tactics. In a nation where you’re supposed to have secrets, hardly anyone wants to change the rules.

Pamela Druckerman is a contributing opinion writer and the author of There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story.

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