Benjamin Griveaux’s troubled campaign for mayor of Paris came to a startling end on Friday after an online leak of sexual images led Emmanuel Macron’s close ally to pull out of the race, leaving the ruling party without a candidate for next month’s municipal elections.
Griveaux, 42, said he opted for retreat to protect his family after a website published excerpts from private sexual videos, accompanied by screengrabs of racy text messages, which it said came from the former government spokesman.
"A website and social networks have launched vile attacks concerning my private life. My family does not deserve this. No one should ever be subjected to such abuse," Griveaux told reporters as he announced he was quitting the contest.
His demise triggered a chorus of alarm and dismay from across the political spectrum, with allies and rivals alike warning that French democracy was being endangered by intrusions into politicians’ private lives and social media hounding.
It also dealt a stinging blow to France’s ruling LREM party, which has been rocked by unprecedented divisions – some stemming from the bitter contest that resulted in Griveaux getting the nomination in the first place.
“This is a huge blow for the ruling party, and a huge blow for French politics in general,” Bruno Cautrès, a political analyst at Sciences-Po Paris, told FRANCE 24, describing the manner of Griveaux's demise as a "political earthquake".
The former mayoral candidate is a high-profile public figure, Cautrès noted, one of Macron’s earliest supporters, a lawmaker and a former government spokesman. He was running for the most coveted of France's municipalities, a political fiefdom that has been used in the past, notably by former French President Jacques Chirac, as a springboard for higher office – and one Macron’s camp was desperate to claim.
Politicians close ranks
According to French daily Libération, the video was first published online by a Russian performance artist who wished to expose Griveaux’s “hypocrisy”. Pyotr Pavlensky reportedly said he got the video from a "source" who had a consensual relationship with Griveaux.
"[Griveaux] is someone who constantly brings up family values, who says he wants to be the mayor of families and always cites his wife and children as an example. But he is doing the opposite," Libération quoted Pavlensky as saying.
"I don't mind people living the sexuality they wish (...), but they have to be honest," he added. "He wants to be the head of the city and he lies to voters. I now live in France, I am Parisian, it is important for me."
Politicians across the board were quick to disagree, rallying in support of the beleaguered former candidate and his right to privacy.
Incumbent Socialist mayor Anne Hidalgo, who leads the race in opinion polls, called for "the respect of privacy and of people”, while her centrist opponent Cedric Villani, who lost out to Griveaux in a deeply divisive race for the LREM nomination, warned in a tweet that the attack on his former rival posed “a serious threat for our democracy.”
“We’re not trying to elect saints,” added Sebastien Chenu, a spokesman for the far-right National Rally party, normally an unforgiving political opponent of Macron’s LREM.
The reactions offered a striking reminder of the longstanding view in France that politicians’ private lives are largely off limits. But that assumption is increasingly being challenged, said Cautrès, noting that politicians have themselves helped blur the line between public and private.
“It is difficult today to draw a clear line between public and private life in the social-media era,” he explained. “In fact, politicians are often all too happy to stage and promote their private life.”
“Nowadays politicians are required to be irreproachable,” added FRANCE 24’s political editor Roselyne Febvre, noting that the sex tape scandal comes at the worst of times for France’s ruling party.
“The mayoral elections are just one month away and Macron’s camp is already mired in several crises,” she adds, pointing to tensions that have emerged within the party and mounting criticism of its planned pension reform.
Macron and his government have come under unprecedented criticism from members of their own party amid a series of policy mishaps that have irked LREM’s normally pliant lawmakers.
The rivalry between Griveaux and Villani, a star mathematician who resisted pressure to step aside, has added to the turmoil, leading to the latter’s expulsion from the party only last week.
But with Griveaux now out of the picture, the decision to exclude his rival is looking even more like a strategic blunder, argued Cautrès.
“The result is that the ruling party is left without a back-up plan for the biggest prize in next month’s municipal elections,” he said.
“LREM already faced a tough battle in Paris,” added FRANCE 24’s Febvre, noting that Griveaux had slipped into third place in opinion polls, behind conservative candidate Rachida Dati. “Now it is looking like mission impossible.”
The party now faces a race against the clock to find a replacement candidate, with one name on everyone’s lips – Marlène Schiappa, the high-profile gender equality minister – already declaring she is not interested in the job.