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Sex tape scandal sparks debate over whether French politics is becoming more like the US?

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Benjamin Griveaux, then the French Government's Spokesperson, at a press conference in Paris on Jan.9, 2019.
Benjamin Griveaux, then the French Government's Spokesperson, at a press conference in Paris on Jan.9, 2019.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Christophe Ena, Pool   -   Christophe Ena
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The withdrawal last week of Benjamin Griveaux in the race for the Paris city hall after the release of private sex tapes online has sparked a debate in France about whether the country's politics are being "Americanised".

Griveaux, a close ally of French President Emmanuel Macron, is the first politician in the country to have ever been forced to quit because of a scandal that's not judicial in nature.

But over the pond, many public figures have suffered a similar fate. Contrary to the US where family life and traditional, wholesome values play an important role in the electoral process, French politicians tend to keep their private lives under wrap and their spouses usually prefer to remain in the background.

And when scandals have erupted, the French have traditionally had a more "shrug and move on attitude".

Former President Francois Mitterand had a second family — a fact that was known for years across the political and media scenes before it was revealed to the wider public. Nicolas Sarkozy was married to second wife, Cecilia, when he was elected president in May 2007, but got married just 10 months later to model-turned-singer Carla Bruni. His successor, Francois Hollande, had an affair with actress Julie Gayet.

In every instance, the scandals have certainly grabbed headlines and resulted in personal embarrassment, but have had no political or professional consequences.

'French less puritan'

Christophe Dubois, co-author of a book entitled "Sexus Politicus", qualified the Griveaux scandal on BFM TV as "totally unprecedented" in France but disputed comparisons with the US.

"What distinguishes the French electorate from the Anglo-Saxon public is that it is not a puritan. The somewhat adulterous nature of our elected officials has never prevented a candidate from campaigning or being elected," he added.

But Barthelemy Courmont, research director at the IRIS think tank, told the Marianne magazine that the phenomenon of "Americanisation" of the political scene started in the early 2000s with more emphasis progressively put on morality.

"A form of puritanism similar to that of the US is emerging in the country of Laclos and Voltaire," he said, warning that the private lives of politicians might now be "scrutinised" in France because of the Griveaux scandal.

'More political than moral'

A survey released on Tuesday by IFOP found that a majority — 57% — of the 1,000 people polled were in favour of Griveaux withdrawing his bid to become Paris mayor in March.

But the poll also showed that religious respondents were no more likely than those with no faith to back his decision to quit, respectively 55% and 57%.

"Likewise, his withdrawal is approved by a majority of French people in the most liberal sexually-oriented categories, such as those who have already sent an image of them naked (52%) or those claiming a part of homosexuality (51% ), a sign that the French judgment on this affair seems more political than moral," the pollster said.

Polls put Griveaux in third position in the race for the Paris mayorship behind the incumbent, Socialist Anne Hidalgo, and the right-wing candidate, Rachida Dati.

A national survey released last month also credited him with just 20% of favourable opinion, making him the 42nd most popular politician in the country.