Rivals from across France's political spectrum joined in a chorus of alarm and dismay Friday and warned that French democracy is in danger after an online leak of graphic sexual images led an associate of President Emmanuel Macron to pull out of the race for mayor of Paris.
Rapid expressions of support for Benjamin Griveaux were a striking reminder of the longstanding and widely held view in France that public servants' private lives are largely off limits, especially what they do in private settings with consenting adults.
A Russian performance artist who accused Griveaux of lying to Paris voters and “big hypocrisy” claimed responsibility for sexually explicit posts that apparently prompted the candidate to end his bid for City Hall.
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Politicians warned that using sex to shame a public figure represented an Americanization of French politics, a shift toward more puritanical standards.
“In France, morals have never been subjects to make a politician fall,” said Julien Aubert, a lawmaker from the rival Republicans party. “In the United States, the subject of morals is often used to bring down politicians.”
“We’re a country with 2,000 years of history of buttocks and wantonness," he said in a phone interview. “A line has been crossed through social media, because no French media would ever have published this."
Others warned that people will no longer want to stand for elected office if they run the risk of their private affairs becoming public, and that the leaking of sexually explicit material to take Griveaux out of next month's municipal elections was a threat to France's proud democratic traditions.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called for “respect for the private lives of people and of families” and said the affair “isn't worthy of the democratic debate.”
“We’re not trying to elect saints," said Sebastien Chenu, a spokesman for the far-right National Rally party, normally an unforgiving political opponent of Griveaux's centrist camp. Chenu was speaking on BFM-TV.
On the far left, former presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon also expressed support, saying Griveaux was the victim of score-settling and that public life must not become prey to voyeurism.
“The publication of intimate images to destroy an adversary is odious,” Melenchon tweeted.
Lawmaker Cedric Villani, who split from Griveaux's party to stand against him in Paris, warned in a tweetthat his rival was the victim of an attack that posed “a serious threat for our democracy.”
Griveaux previously served as a spokesman for Macron's government. His sudden withdrawal from the mayoral race left Macron's centrist party without a candidate in the French capital that is the most coveted of France's municipalities. Paris is a political fiefdom that has been used in the past, notably by former French President Jacques Chirac, as a springboard for higher office.
A grim-faced Griveaux, who has three children with his partner, announced the withdrawal himself on Friday morning, saying he'd been targeted by “vile attacks” on the internet and social media.
“My family doesn't deserve this,” he said. “No one should ever be subjected to such violence.”
He didn't comment specifically on the authenticity of the images or on the people depicted.
Pyotr Pavlensky, a Russian performance artist noted for macabre, politically charged actions, claimed responsibility. Speaking to BFM-TV, he described Griveaux as “a candidate who has lied to his electors" and “very dangerous” for Paris.
Pavlensky was named on the internet site that published the explicit videos apparently extracted from mobile phone exchanges. Pavlensky left Russia in 2017 after being told of rape accusations against him and later announcedthat France had granted him political asylum.
The internet site invited readers to send in explicit content involving politicians and said “only officials and political representatives who lie to their electors by imposing puritanism on society while scorning it themselves” were of interest.
The newspaper Liberation said it got a call from Pavlensky on Thursday night and that he said he obtained the images from an unnamed source who had a consensual relationship with Griveaux.
“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," Liberation quoted Pavlensky as saying. "But he does the opposite.”
A lawyer for Pavlensky confirmed that the artist published the videos. Juan Branco said he had warned him beforehand of the legal risks of doing so.
Branco said the show of support from other politicians for Griveaux “is very specific to France” and demonstrated “the impunity of the French elite.” “That’s what Pyotr Pavlensky wanted to denounce, it’s the double standards that some people are protected and others aren’t,” he said in a phone interview.