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Sex video throws Macron's party into turmoil

February 17, 2020

The resignation of Macron's candidate for Paris mayor over a leaked "revenge porn" video has left the French president's party scrambling for a new candidate. Confusion over the role of a Russian activist lingers.

Frankreich Benjamin Griveaux and Agnes Buzyn
Agnes Buzyn (left) will run for Paris mayor after the resignation of GriveauxImage: AFP/E. Feferberg & J. Saget

When Emmanuel Macron was elected French president in May 2017, he vowed to break with the old political establishment and initiate change. To prove his commitment to that promise, Macron made Agnes Buzyn his new health minister the following day.

Buzyn had not risen through the party ranks, but had made a name for herself as the head of the French National Cancer Institute, and thereafter as the president of the French High Health Authority (HAS). Now, however, at the height of the Coronavirus outbreak, Buzyn will step down from her post because Macron's party, La République en Marche (LREM), needs her to deal with an even more urgent matter. 

Buzyn is now running for Paris mayor. Why? Because the party's original candidate, Benjamin Griveaux, was forced to quit following the publication of a video apparently showing him engaged in a sexual act. Griveaux's resignation is a political disaster for LREM with the French municipal elections due in March this year.

Frankreich Cedric Villani
Cedric Villani had to be forced out of the LREMImage: Getty Images/AFP/J. Saget

Sex video leaked online

Griveaux, previously a Socialist Party lawmaker, became one of Macron's closest allies, helping him get elected and then serving as government spokesperson. Not everyone in LREM, however, supported his bid to run for Paris mayor. Eccentric mathematician Cedric Villani, for example, also intended to run for the office, but was thrown out of the party in January in an effort to boost Griveaux's chances of winning.

Several explanations for this awkward political situation have been making the rounds lately. What is beyond question, however, is that a video has been circulating on Twitter since Thursday depicting a man – believed to be Griveaux – masturbating. Speaking to French broadcaster BFMTV, Griveaux said, "For more than a year, my family and I have been subjected to slander, lies, rumors, anonymous attacks [...] and death threats."

But Griveaux did not deny the authenticity of the video in question. Independent investigative platform Médiapart has also reported that Griveaux, who is married, sent risqué text messages to another woman.

Is Petr Pavlensky behind all this?

Russian performance artist Petr Pavlensky has claimed he is behind the leak. Pavlensky made headlines in the past for spectacular stunts, for example when he nailed his scrotum to Moscow's Red Square, forcing him to sit naked in front of the city's Lenin mausoleum.

He has also wrapped himself in barbed wire, and even sewn his mouth shut in solidarity with Russian punk group Pussy Riot. Once also set fire to the entrance of Russia's domestic intelligence agency headquarters, FSB, to protest against the country's leadership. Pavlensky was later granted political asylum in France when Macron took office, and spent some time in jail after setting fire to a Parisian Banque de France branch.

Now, debate has ensued in France over whether or not publishing such a private video counts as a form of political art. Pavlensky himself asserts that it does, arguing that the film highlights the depravity of the French political class.

Speaking to French daily Libération, the artist said: "He [Griveaux] keeps speaking of family values, wants to be a mayor for the families, and keeps referring to his wife and children. But in reality, what he does is the complete opposite." Pavlensky says he received the video material from a person who claims to have had an extramarital affair with Griveaux. But some have speculated that the video might in fact have been leaked by LREM party members.   

French police temporarily detained Pavlensky and his girlfriend. Some have speculated that he got her to trick Griveaux into sending him the video, though there is no evidence to support this theory.

Russian artist Petr Pavlensky
Petr Pavlensky says leaking the video was an act of political artImage: picture-alliance/Photoagency Interpress/Russian Look

Private matters used to be off-limits

Across the political spectrum, French lawmakers have expressed solidarity with Griveaux. Though there has traditionally been a consensus in France that details about the private lives of French politicians should be kept out of the public sphere, the internet has made leaks inevitable.

French journalists, who knew about the extramarital affairs of high-ranking politicians, would keep them confidential. But in the era of the internet they have lost their role as public gatekeepers. That makes the 42-year old Griveaux the first French politician ever to suffer serious consequences for an extramarital affair.

These developments, with just weeks to go until the French municipal elections, pose a serious problem for President Macron. He is eager to see his party win the Parisian mayoral race, a prestigious office, in a city that has in the past proven hugely supportive of Macron's LREM.

But it was clear from the outset that Griveaux would not coast to victory. An opinion poll prior to the video leak showed that incumbent mayor and Socialist party member Anne Hidalgo is the most popular candidate. Conservative lawmaker Rachida Dati was the second most popular – followed by Griveaux in third place.

In other French cities, long-established political parties with career politicians are likely to make gains, too. Macron's governing LREM, which as a grass-roots movement initially attracted many political neophytes, has been losing momentum – and fragmenting. In 16 large French cities, LREM dissidents are running against official party candidates. Not only that, many LREM members have either left or joined other parties. And the fallout from the yellow vest protest movement is exacerbating matters further.

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