Politics in France always contains a potentially explosive element of sex and affairs of the heart mixed into public life. But the newest case of politics colliding with the personal in France has taken things to a new, uncomfortable high.
On Tuesday, just six days ahead of critical runoff voting in the nation’s legislative elections, French First Lady Valérie Trierweiler voiced her support for a dissident leftist challenging the official candidate from President François Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) in the city of La Rochelle. But in addition to violating internal party discipline, Trierweiler’s move also risks creating serious domestic stress within the Élysée. The official PS candidate in question is Ségolène Royal — Hollande’s ex-partner of nearly 30 years, whose bid the President has publicly backed.
Trierweiler’s tweeted endorsement on Tuesday morning of renegade candidate Olivier Falorni came as leftist heavyweights flocked to La Rochelle to back Royal’s legislative runoff. Royal topped first-round voting on June 10 with a 32% score. But she faces a tough race in the June 17 final against Falorni, who finished second in the initial stage with 28.9%. Not only is Falorni a native of La Rochelle and deputy mayor of the town, he also won much local sympathy and support following his expulsion from the PS for refusing to withdraw his parliamentary run in deference to the transplanted Royal.
In addition to that, Falorni is now getting the vocal backing of conservative figures in the region calling on their voters to help the local upstart beat the official PS candidate “parachuted in” to a presumable safe seat. Given the failure of the right’s candidate to qualify for Sunday’s final, La Rochelle conservatives view Falorni as their only chance for beating Royal, whom they’ve reviled since her 2007 presidential campaign. Those anti-Royal ranks appeared to thicken further on Tuesday with Trierweiler’s tweet.
“Courage to Olivier Falorni, who didn’t lose heart and who has fought alongside La Rochelle residents in a selfless manner for so many years,” Trierweiler said in a tweet that quickly went Franco-viral.
“I don’t have a comment,” a smiling but clearly surprised Royal told journalists who pressed her for a reply to Trierweiler’s post as she stumped on Tuesday. “I’m focused on the voters of La Rochelle and doing my political duty.”
Falorni was less tongue-tied in responding to Trierweiler’s partisan warble.
“It’s a message of personal support and friendship that I appreciate, especially within this context of political attacks and personal threats,” Falorni told French TV channel LCI. “I’ve been pressured to withdraw and leave the final to a single candidate [who] was imposed from above by the direction of the PS.”
Though the increasingly bitter battle of La Rochelle is unlikely to prevent the left from winning a parliamentary majority in this Sunday’s polling, it is a badly timed embarrassment for the PS. Projections from first-round voting show the left taking legislative control — providing Hollande the support he’ll need to apply progrowth and socially attentive policies French conservatives virulently oppose. Yet those initial results had also led Socialist officials to quietly hope the PS might win an outright majority of its own and thus not have to rely on support of smaller parties that will demand policy be pushed harder left.
With that objective in mind, the PS had sought to close ranks and unite behind all Socialist candidates who’d qualified for runoffs. That image of unity took a blow on Tuesday, however, with Trierweiler appearing to side with Falorni against the candidate (and former squeeze) her own presidential partner endorses. Indeed, Royal’s campaign posters feature a photo of her head-of-state ex-companion and his quote stating, “Ségolène Royal is the only candidate from the [left] who can claim my official backing and support.”
As of early Tuesday afternoon, the Élysée was offering no official response to the buzz rising from Trierweiler’s stance — though French media quoted unidentified presidential advisers expressing astonishment and some dismay at her initiative. There may be more of that where it came from. A decidedly independent and assured woman disinclined to assume the role of an Élysée prop, Trierweiler recently surprised political analysts and fellow journalists by declaring she’d continue pursuing her long reporting and writing career during Hollande’s term. In doing so, Trierweiler waved off concerns that her media work and status could create conflicts of interest or other sorts of controversy.
After Tuesday’s tweet, however, she’ll have a harder time dismissing warnings that her reported dislike of Royal risks creating trouble for Hollande. Now that that’s happened in an election context, Trierweiler will probably be able to contemplate those perils in what stands to be the tight-lipped, jaw-flexed silence of the Élysée until voting ends on June 17.