PARIS — In a Parisian café a year ago, over croissants, 42-year-old Sébastien Valiela told us about his achievements as a paparazzo. He wasn’t boastful, but after two coffees, he said, “If someone manages to photograph François Hollande and Julie Gayet together, it will be a huge coup. But who would dare to publish it?”

Twelve months later, he pulled off this “huge coup” when the French tabloid Closer, which specializes in salacious stories, published the now-infamous Jan. 10 story and accompanying photos about President Hollande’s affair with the French actress. The images show two men, one of them Hollande, arriving on a scooter to meet Gayet. Then, a blond woman enters the building.

When we remind Valiela of his earlier prophecy, he laughs about it. “Yes, I already knew,” he says. “Paparazzi had been talking about it for a while. The thing was to discover their meeting place. We trailed a security agent working for Julie Gayet, and we found it.” Some say former President Nicolas Sarkozy tipped off tabloids about their love nest. “Nonsense,” the photographer says of the rumor.

Valiela shot the series of photographs by “staking out” the chic building of rue du Cirque, not far from the Elysée, where the couple met on the fourth floor with the blinds closed. He began Dec. 26 with fellow photographer Lorenzo Viers, and the photos ultimately published were taken just before and after New Year’s.

One of the two men stationed himself discreetly in the street, while the other hid behind a window on the staircase of the opposite building. "Two of us allows better shooting angles and increases the chances of succeeding,” Valiela says.

A lone wolf

When we met Valiela for the first time, it was to prepare text for the catalogue of the “Paparazzi!” exhibition, which opens Feb. 26 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. His work is well represented in the exhibition.

Sébastien Valiela. Photo: Screengrab via YouTube

“He’s the best,” says Frédéric Hervé, of the photo agency Bestimage. “Sébastien is the last pure paparazzo, one of the few to do only that. He’s a lone wolf, but his address book is astonishing. He has connections, uses social networks extremely well and works his subjects far from the swarm of paparazzi.”

He earned his reputation with a photograph shot 20 years ago that had the same troubling echoes as the Hollande-Gayet photos. Same impact, same way of revealing a secret part of the head of state’s private life.

In a 1994 photograph published in Paris Match, Valiela revealed the “secret” daughter of President François Mitterrand, Mazarine Pingeot. In the color photo, a 77-year-old Mitterrand puts his hand on the shoulder of his 19-year-old daughter as they leave the starred Paris restaurant Le Divellec. Valiela was working with his colleague Pierre Suu, both of them young shooters for the Sphinx agency, belonging to Bruno Mouron and Pascal Rostain, two important paparazzi figures.

“We were the basically same age as Mazarine. We knew one of her friends from school,” Valiela explains.

Finding the right angle was tricky, he recalls. Located 100 meters from the restaurant, with his back to Mazarine and without being noticed by the 15 bodyguards fluttering around, Valiela had Suu lie on the pavement. He then directed the huge 500-millimeter lens between his partner’s legs and took the shot. “Hollande’s photo was much easier to take, seeing how little protection he had.”

A major impact

His pictures have shaken up the lives of two French socialist presidents, which makes him smile, though it has nothing to do with their politics. It seems Valiela was born to be a paparazzo. At just eight years old, he was fascinated by the “forbidden, rough, mysterious pictures” he discovered in his parents’ copies of Paris Match.

Is it a coincidence that he was born in La Baule, a chic coastal resort where celebrities spend their summers? He started taking photos of people in compromising situations at 16, while he was still in high school, to spice up his job as a bartender. 

Valiela soon became the symbol of a new generation of French paparazzi that helped nurture the success of the tabloid Voici. Founded by the German Axel Ganz (Prisma group), it was the first French monthly magazine to specialize in publishing work from “cheeky paparazzi.”

The magazine’s sales soon reached 800,000 copies. Valiela covered news presenters Patrick Poivre d’Arvor and Claire Chazal, actors Gérard Depardieu and Carole Bouquet, Pierre Arditi and Jane Birkin, and “very often” singer Patrick Bruel. “We talked about romantic affairs, separations, pregnant actresses, babies,” he says. “Every week, public personalities, journalists, models, reality-TV candidates wondered what was going to be said about them.”

It was heavy, hurtful sometimes, and there were a fair number of lawsuits. But the readers wanted more.

The Paris Hilton years

Valiela eventually became an independent paparazzo, and lived in Los Angeles from 2004 to 2008. He discovered that work in the U.S. was easy money because, unlike in France, any photograph taken in a public place is legal there. So photographers didn’t have to play hide and seek.

It was a time when improbable and shameless personalities such as Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie and Kim Kardashian, among others, flaunted themselves on Malibu beaches or at the vegetable market, allowing any paparazzo to earn “$20,000 in one weekend,” Valiela recalls.

When he returned to Paris in 2008, the paparazzi market was collapsing. The economic crisis was in full bloom, and so was the Internet. Photographs flooded websites, blogs and social networks. Valiela saw photos that used to be worth 350 euros selling for 30, celebrities losing in aura what they were gaining in indulgence, and actresses posting their effigies on Instagram.

He saw French actor Daniel Auteuil “assaulting a tourist brandishing his cellphone, convinced he was a paparazzi,” and 20 colleagues “standing around outside a hotel, waiting for David Beckham to leave.”

Valiela decided he would specialize in the rare and expensive exclusive. “Digging up information, hunting down a story, catching Ernst of Hanover in Thailand kissing a girl who is not his wife. It’s not accessible to everyone. There’s only a dozen of us in the world maintaining this position.” To do this, he founded his own agency, Eyewitness, in 2008.

Photographer to the stars Daniel Angeli, 70, is no soft-hearted person but doesn’t find any nobility in the work of Valiela. “The job has nothing to do with today’s clowns, staking out day and night,” Angeli says. “It’s not journalism anymore. It’s proving people guilty of adultery.”

But Valiela rejects the criticisms. He concedes that his pictures have led to a number of lawsuits and that he has been less that straightforward in many situations. He has pretended to be a firefighter in a city hall. But expect no remorse from him. Especially not for the photos of a helmeted François Hollande.

“I’m proud,” Valiela says. “It’s neither rumor nor manipulation. It’s verified facts. I don’t see why public figures should be in newspapers only when they want to promote their careers. When you’re president, you have a function to protect. There were so many photographers on this case that it was bound to come out one day.”

The fact that Closer published the pictures of François Hollande and Julie Gayet is no surprise. This is the same monthly tabloid that published a 2012 photo of Prince William’s wife Kate topless on a property in southern France. A criminal complaint for “invasion of privacy” by the British Crown is currently under investigation.

But most importantly, Closer generalized political paparazzi in France. “The turning point was during the summer of 2006, when we published on our cover Ségolène Royal in a swimsuit, just before she was nominated as a presidential candidate for the socialist party,” Closer editor-in-chief Laurence Pieau explains.

The following year, Closer published a photo of François Hollande with his new partner, Valérie Trierweiler, on a Moroccan beach. Here is he is now, with Julie Gayet, allowing Closer to double its sales — up to 600,000 copies. Valiela earned 40,000 euros for his exposé, according to the website Presse News.

“Nonsense,” the photographer responds, though admitting his report “would sell anywhere in the world.” Which goes a long way in maintaining a reputation.