February 16, 2024 - 10:00am

French lifestyle magazines have always been political. That’s why presidents appear on their front covers during the long August holiday, showing off their chest hair or worse, as they frolic on Riviera beaches with an equally scantily clad wife or girlfriend. 

Heads of state realise how important it is to get the key messages across: they are virile and glamorous, and if you share their views (and of course vote for them) you too could one day be living the same leisured dream.

Odd, then, that Playboy —  the veteran erotic glossy that is euphemistically referred to as a magazine de charm in France — is now being criticised for running too much hard-Right politics in between its images of buxom nudes. A long interview with Jean Messiha, an Egyptian-French polemicist, is said to indicate an unacceptable lurch towards extremist populism.

Messiha, a former advisor to presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen and now supporting the even more reactionary Éric Zemmour, is certainly controversial on law and order. Last year he helped raise more than €1.5 million for the family of a policeman charged with shooting dead a teenage joy rider. The victim, Nahel Merzouk, was from an ethnic minority immigrant background, and his death triggered weeks of rioting as thousands protested against discriminatory policing.  

The fundraising was controversial but — as it involved those who vote for both Le Pen and Zemmour — support for it was broad and loud. Suggesting that their most prominent mouthpieces, such as Messiha, have no place in middle-market magazine journalism, let alone the wider media, is patently absurd.  

Libération, the Left-wing Paris daily, appears to be Playboy’s strongest critic, claiming in an editorial that “freeing extreme-right speech” was some kind of Gallic “taboo” that Playboy was trying to break. 

Libé was actually founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher and writer who never stopped breaking taboos, not least of all ones concerning his own country. He criticised everyone and everything, from petty bourgeoise morality to long-standing French government economic and foreign policy. Needless to say, Sartre granted a wonderful interview to Playboy in May 1965 — one full of wise quotes, including: “My duty as an intellectual is to think, to think without restriction, even at the risk of blundering.”

The truth is that Playboy, which was founded in Chicago in 1953 before international editions emerged in countries such as France, has always run controversial pieces. Statesmen interviewed by its journalists over the years have ranged from the late Martin Luther King Jr. to Donald Trump.  

Those complaining about imbalance might also note that French politician Marlène Schiappa was a government minister when she posed on the cover of Playboy last year. The pictures and accompanying interview helped ensure the magazine’s early editions sold out within hours, with its monthly sales shooting from 30,000 to 100,000. Schiappa is also a feminist author, and by no means of the Right — extreme or otherwise.

Like all market-driven publications, Playboy follows the zeitgeist. Its editors are well aware that parties such as Le Pen’s Rassemblement National are doing extremely well in the opinion polls, and considerable gains are expected in European Parliament elections in June. This is all to the detriment of Schiappa’s former boss, President Emmanuel Macron, whose own Renaissance party is floundering badly. 

All publications and broadcast outlets are in some way political, and they naturally strive to reflect public opinion. You don’t have to be Jean-Paul Sartre to accept such universal truths, and that’s why criticism of Playboy editors for doing their job is so short-sighted.

Peter Allen is a journalist and author based in Paris.