PARIS — No sooner had local pundits stopped boasting that Gary Hart's sexual-political misadventure could never happen in worldly France than right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and his estranged wife proved them wrong.
Pierrette Le Pen fired the first shot by posing as an all but completely nude maid in the French edition of that quintessentially American publication, Playboy.
The opulently proportioned, 50-year-old mother of three daughters insisted in print that she was only taking Le Pen, leader of the far right National Front Party and a declared candidate in next year's presidential election, at his word.
Became Household Word
He had suggested, she recalled, that she seek "work as a maid" when she sought to claim what she said was her share of their community property. Playboy's color photographs show her scrubbing the floor on all fours, polishing a boot and vacuuming.
Overnight Pierrette became a household word and her performance has kept many Frenchmen and Frenchwomen laughing during a leaden June.
She indignantly denied suggestions in the press that she had been paid handsomely to disrobe. French Playboy has said it has sold 800,000 copies of the Pierrette issue compared to 130,000 most months.
Nonetheless, she has intimated to the local press that unless her burly husband settles up she plans to publish potentially explosive memoirs of her 25 years with Le Pen, who heretofore has portrayed himself as the defender of moral rigor and family values.
Designed to Hurt Le Pen
Her announced intention to publish before next May's presidential elections strikes political analysts as clearly designed to hurt Le Pen. His National Front Party in recent years has polled as much as, and on occasion more than, the Communist Party.
Le Pen, who has a long record of bringing libel suits against the press, kept his thoughts to himself even after Pierrette followed up her Playboy photographs by appearing on a popular call-in television program where 87% of the callers approved of her actions.
But Le Pen went public when the satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine, in a front page "exclusive" titled "The Infernal Couple Cheek to Cheek," ran a photograph of his bare backside as he was putting on swimming trunks next to a picture of a scantily clad Pierrette.
He failed to have the satirical weekly seized. But the Court of Appeals did order the Canard to pay him $3,300 as an effective down payment against eventual damages he may yet collect if, as seems possible, he decides to bring suit.
Claiming that he is "this century's most libeled politician," Le Pen said he considered himself "morally divorced" from Pierrette.
In fact, Pierrette, who left her husband three years ago, has gone to the Supreme Court of Appeals after having lost her divorce case before two lower tribunals.
Despite the salacious atmosphere surrounding the case, serious French political analysts privately wonder whether Le Pen's often strait-laced supporters will desert him in next year's presidential election or stick by him out of sympathy.
He has remained uncharacteristically quiet. But in an interview with the magazine Paris Match his three daughters, all of whom sided with their father and are active in National Front politics, were highly critical of their mother.
Pierrette "had hurt Papa and that was the goal," said their middle daughter, 23-year-old Yann, "but she also hurt us."
Although amused French politicians of both sexes have been quoted as approving Pierrette, her youngest daughter, 18-year-old Marine, said "the worldwide exploitation of these degrading photographs gives a wretched idea of French womanhood."