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European Politicians' Private Lives Not Always Under Scrutiny


David Paterson is replacing Eliot Spitzer as New York governor. Spitzer resigned last week over an affair with a call girl that made international headlines. From Paris, Lisa Bryant reports the private lives of European politicians are not always given the same scrutiny as those in the United States.

Europe is certainly no stranger to sex scandals. In 2004, British Home Secretary David Blunkett resigned amid allegations that he used his influence to speed through a visa for the nanny of his former lover - a charge he denied at the time.

The same year, another prominent politician was fired from a senior job within Britain's Conservative Party after reports surfaced about an alleged extramarital affair.

And in 1963 former British cabinet minister John Profumo almost brought down his government after it was revealed he was having a relationship with a prostitute - who was also involved with a Soviet intelligence officer.

Poland, too, has been roiled by a sexual scandal, with prosecutors charging a former deputy prime minister last year with soliciting sex from two women who worked for his Self Defense Party.

Generally, however, scandals of the heart and bed remain rare exceptions in European politics, says French analyst Dominique Moisi. He says that is in large part because Europeans do not scrutinize the private lives of their politicians as closely as Americans.

"I think the only country that looks like America is probably Great Britain," said Dominique Moisi. "There is something like an Anglo-Saxon world, where there is a fascination for sex scandals and where you cannot lie to your public."

The case of New York governor Elliot Spitzer has riveted France and other European countries. Spitzer was considered a crusader against corruption and championed legislation toughening punishment for men seeking prostitutes.

But Moisi says French in particular are not judging Spitzer's downfall as harshly as Americans.

"In France, most scandals are about money - and not about sex," he said. "There is a mixture of clearly interest but also surprise - Mr. Clean [Spitzer] is being caught in activities, which [do not fit] his actions and his reputation. There is a tendency to say, 'Oh well, that is America.''

Unlike their American counterparts, the French media generally do not delve into the private lives of their politicians. The fact that former French president Francois Mitterrand had a long-term mistress and illegitimate daughter was an open secret. But when one reporter asked him about it, the answer was "and so?"

True, current French President Nicolas Sarkozy has lost popularity points in polls after divorcing his second wife and remarrying his third in the space of months. But analysts say most French were sanctioning him because they felt his private life was hurting his job as president.

An analyst at the Center for European Reform in London, Katinka Barysch, believes countries like Britain and Germany would act more harshly to a Spitzer-style case at home.

"In both countries, a scandal of the magnitude that has just broken in the United States would also result in a resignation," said Katinka Barysch. "Simply because the credibility is on the line of somebody who had the image of being quite strict on moral issues."

But overall, Barysch says, Europeans are generally tolerant about their politicians' behavior outside their jobs.

"I think what is key here is openness," said Barysch. "In Germany, when people say they are living out of wedlock or have homosexual partners, that is OK so long as it is out in the open."

As long as European politicians are honest in their professional lives, Barysch says, their electorate is unlikely to sanction them for what they do outside their jobs.

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