READERS of the French newspaper Le Figaro were no doubt spellbound this afternoon after it published a claim that the President of the United States, Barack Obama, had trumped their own President, Francois Hollande, by having an affair not with a little-known actress (sorry, Julie) but with America's queen of pop, Beyonce.
The extraordinary claim was attributed to a Parisian paparazzo, Pascal Rostain, who claimed it would break in the Washington Post tomorrow.
"You should know that in the United States there is something of enormity about to happen," Rostain had said in the course of a radio interview with Europe 1 earlier in the day. "It will come out tomorrow in the Washington Post – which you can hardly call the gutter press… I can assure you that the entire world is going to be talking about it."
Whether one gave the story any credence was all a matter of trust – in the photographer, in Le Figaro and in the Washington Post.
Could Pascal Rostain be trusted?
Le Figaro claimed that the 56-year-old snapper, who founded the Sphinx agency with Bruno Mouron, had enjoyed many international scoops, including snaps of President Sarkozy's former wife Cecilia with her new friend, Richard Attias back in 2005. Rostain then became close enough to Carla Bruni for her to call him affectionately "Mon Pascalou". If that wasn't enough, he used to lend his apartment to Valerie Treirweiler when she needed to make a discreet rendezvous with her then lover Francois Hollande (those were the days). Rostain's contacts are so good, said Le Figaro, that it would not be surprising if he was "au courant" with what was being planned by the Washington Post.
Could Le Figaro be trusted?
Normally, yes. It's a solid newspaper: its nearest equivalent in Britian would be the Daily Telegraph. Its reporting of Pascal Rostain's claim is not typical of its news coverage. The paper was honest enough to say in its piece that Rostain likes to be provocative – but then hedged its bets by adding: "Even when it's in provocation, there is always some truth in what he says."
Could the Washington Post be trusted?
It is hard to believe that the newspaper that broke the 1972 Watergate scandal – the 'gate' against which all other 'gates' are measured - would publish such a story unless it was watertight. Of course, the paper was no longer in the hands of the Graham family having recently been bought by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos: if he was looking for a circulation-building scoop, he couldn't do much better than this. However, a Post spokesperson, Kris Coratti, insisted that it was "definitely not true" that the paper had such a story in the works.
Well, they would deny it, wouldn't they? Which meant that it all came down to the word of a paparazzo who may or may not be best mates with Carla and Valerie.
Cut to 6.30 pm French time when Le Figaro updated its article. Pascal Rostain, it turned out, had decided to retract his story. He said he was busy promoting his new book, Voyeurs, when he was pushed into a corner by Europe 1 presenter Jean-Marc Morandini and, as a joke, came up with the tale of Obama and Beyonce.
"Only Morandini could have believed this and jumped on it by repeating it on the internet," said Rostain. "Listen carefully to what I said on the radio and you will hear me laugh at the end…
"It's incredible to see what a buzz this has provoked across the world… I only wanted to show, by being absurd, how my profession is going downhill."
At least the retraction is out of the way before tomorrow night's state dinner at the White House for President Hollande. With the Obama administration already having had to destroy several hundred embossed invitations because they included a reference to Valerie Treirweiler, any further Franco-American awkwardness would have been de trop. ·