Bikini clad French pol pix has tongues wagging

Paparazzi photographs of Socialist presidential hopeful Segolene Royal in a turquoise bikini have raised eyebrows in France and underlined the spread of celebrity culture into France’s traditionally sober political coverage.

This week’s edition of celebrity magazine “Closer” included a cover picture of Royal on holiday in bathing suit, cap and sunglasses as part of a survey of “50 stars at the beach.”

A man holds an issue of the French weekly magazine VSD in a Parisian cafe. Bikini shots of Segolene Royal, the Socialist favourite for France's presidential election -- printed opposite snaps of her main rival jogging on a beach -- have rattled the status quo in a country where politicians' private lives have long been taboo.(AFP/Fred Dufour)

A man holds an issue of the French weekly magazine VSD in a Parisian cafe. Bikini shots of Segolene Royal, the Socialist favourite for France’s presidential election — printed opposite snaps of her main rival jogging on a beach — have rattled the status quo in a country where politicians’ private lives have long been taboo.(AFP/Fred Dufour)

Its rival VSD followed up with a similar photo of Royal juxtaposed with a picture of Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative she may well face in next year’s presidential election, jogging on the beach over the headline: “Duel in the sun.”

The photos have sparked widespread radio and newspaper comment including a long article in the ultra-serious Le Monde.

Both politicians are shrewd at using the media to push their image as modern politicians ready to breathe life into France’s hidebound political system and both have faced accusations they place style and image over substance.

That has played into the agenda of a celebrity press devoted to the doings of actors, singers and other personalities referred to in France as “les people.”

“Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy are the ‘people’ of the vacation season,” VSD deputy editor Marc Dolisi wrote in an editorial. “The public watches their smallest actions and gestures because they have used their private lives as a political weapon with such mastery.”

The comment is undoubtedly true but it may also have been aimed at warding off complaints about intrusion.

The French media has traditionally been very discreet about covering politicians’ private lives, steering clear of sensitive issues and sparing them the relentless attention faced by their counterparts in countries like Britain.

But the facade has started to crack.

Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin last year threatened legal action against Paris Match for unauthorized pictures of himself on holiday in bathing trunks.

Unmoved by flattering commentary on her figure in Closer (“And to think she’s 53!”), Royal herself initially considered taking legal action but eventually decided against it so as not to whip up even more interest in the issue.

Le Monde’s cartoonist Plantu took a more jaundiced view, showing a bikini-clad Royal lying on the beach under a television camera and asking her partner, Socialist Party head Francois Hollande: “Can you rub a bit of cream in?”