France

Hollande, Trierweiler love life doesn't matter say French but do they mean it?

Valérie Trierweiler with François Hollande on election night, May 2012
Valérie Trierweiler with François Hollande on election night, May 2012 Reuters

Don’t believe the polls. 77 per cent of those polled by Ifop for France’s Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche say that President Hollande’s reported affair with an actress is his own private matter.

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Most politicians have refrained from comment on the matter, declaring that everyone has the right to a private life. Media coverage has also been restrained, with no shrieking tabloid-style headlines – this is France.

Yet everyone spent the weekend gossiping about it.

Hollande has had a complicated personal life. He left his longstanding partner and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal, just after her defeat by Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 Presidential elections. The reason for his departure was his relationship with Valérie Trierweiler, then a political journalist with the glossy magazine Paris Match. She was a key influence in his subsequent decision to stand himself for the French presidency in 2012, and the woman who got him to shed 10 pounds, don new glasses and shake up his slightly- scruffy image. They are not married.

Valérie Trierweiler was hospitalised on Friday after the story about Hollande’s reported liaison with actress Julie Gayet hit the newstands. Her entourage says she is suffering from exhaustion and has low pressure.

So is it all just a difficult period in a president’s private life or does it matter in today’s France?

Consider the ambiguous position of Valérie Trierweiler. She accompanies Hollande on official trips, helps worthy causes and performs much the same role as all the partners of previous French presidents, even though constitutionally in France, there is no official First Lady role. She has an office in the Elysée Palace, a small staff to help her and her twitter account is called the “official account of the first lady of France”.

But she is not married to Hollande and is therefore in judico-constitutional terms, operating in a sort of limbo. If she is now no longer even Hollande’s personal life-partner, what is she? and why should she have staff and an office paid for by the French taxpayer?
And what of the complicated protocol issues? Who will accompany Hollande on his visit to the Obamas scheduled for February?

This affair also feeds into France’s bubbling and increasingly bitter culture wars. Hollande and Ségolène Royal never married although they had four children together. Many French voters hoped that Hollande and Trierweiler would get married once he was elected. They didn’t. Some voters think they detect in François Hollande a certain contempt for marriage. Some of these people are the same as those who campaigned vigorously against the recent law which allows gay couples in France to marry and raise children. They are part of a growing voice in France which says the country has become socially too lax, and that marriage is the fundamental building block of a stable society. At demonstrations against Gay marriage last year, many banners read: “Hollande wants marriage for everyone except himself!”

It raises questions about Hollande's security. The magazine “Closer” which broke the story of the president’s reported affair, evoked (disingenuously no doubt) concerns about the president’s security, as justification for its decision to publish.

Some deplore the fact that affairs of the heart should in any way cause problems for a French president. If it has no impact on his job, why should we care? they ask, noting the numerous French and international examples of successful leaders with colourful private lives. The French are rather proud of their laws which safeguard the private lives of public figures, even though in the internet age, the separation of public and private has become so blurred.

Sarkozy supporters are amused. Their man was hugely criticised for exposing his private life while in office and was accused of dragging the presidency through the mud.
“It is a lesson in humility”, Jean-François Copé of Sarkozy’s UMP party said on French television on Sunday, reminding viewers of Hollande’s promises to lead a discreet private life.

Hollande is in a difficult situation. Tuesday’s highly-trailed press conference was to be something of a relaunch after a gruesome 2013. It was to be the occasion for him to give more detail about an apparent swing towards the centre right which would have gone some way towards silencing many of his most ardent critics.

Instead President Hollande might have to field difficult questions about his personal life.
In 2008 Sarkozy was pilloried for sounding like an inarticulate teenager when in answer to questions about his burgeoning relationship with Carla Bruni he told the same traditional January press conference “Carla et moi, c’est du sérieux”

What will Hollande say and will he succeed in closing down the matter?
In 2010, he told another glossy magazine Gala, that “Valérie was the woman of his life.”
If he doesn’t get back on message, she won’t disappear quietly.

 

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