Why François Hollande’s Personal Life Is a Public Matter

The French President's alleged affair with an actress has kicked up a familiar scandal in France at a time when the country's politics — and its leader — is at a low ebb

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Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

French President François Hollande and his partner Valérie Trierweiler accompany guests following a meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris on Oct. 1, 2013

Correction appended: Jan. 14, 2014, 3:25 a.m. E.T.

It appeared the most sniggersome of scandals: a middle-aged French head of state riding pillion on a scooter driven by his bodyguard to assignations with a glamorous actress. Closer, the celebrity magazine, larded its Jan. 10 allegations of an affair between 59-year-old President François Hollande and Julie Gayet, 41, with inadvertently comic detail. Hollande’s attempts to hide his identity by retaining his motorcycle helmet until safely inside the apartment building used for these clandestine meetings may have foundered because he wears only one pair of (much photographed) shoes. After a night allegedly spent playing away from his official partner, 48-year-old Valérie Trierweiler, the President is said to have dispatched his security detail to fetch — what else? — croissants.

The French establishment shuddered, not at the apparent misuse of state resources but at a breach of the cultural and legal tradition that insists all citizens, even libidinous Presidents, have the right to keep their personal lives exactly that — personal. Indeed, so highly has this principle been lauded in recent days that one imagines a fourth word may have quietly been appended to the national motto of France: liberty, equality, fraternity, privacy. But beyond French borders and even among some French voters, another emotion bubbled up: amusement. Parodic Twitter accounts in the name of Gayet proliferated. Soon you could even try your hand at an online game, steering Hollande on his scooter to a rendezvous with Gayet and helping him to evade obstacles, including running figures of Trierweiler and Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former longtime companion and mother to his children.

Yesterday came news that made the laughter ring hollow. Amid rumors that the President’s advisers had urged him to oust Trierweiler as First Lady in order to bring the messy business to a speedy end and refocus attention from affairs of heart to affairs of state, officials at the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence, confirmed a report that Trierweiler, succumbing to ungros coup de blues,” a severe bout of depression, had been admitted to the hospital shortly after Closer published its allegations. Another dark twist linked the apartment used by Hollande and Gayet to the Corsican mafia.

This has never been simply a trouser-dropping farce. At its center are real people and raw feelings — and valid concerns about Hollande’s leadership. He had been expected to use tomorrow’s traditional New Year meeting with journalists to relaunch his unpopular presidency with policies to galvanize the euro zone’s second largest, and worryingly torpid, economy. Creating conditions for growth and tackling high unemployment should have been his priorities. Public trust in mainstream politics is at a low ebb, boosting support for the French hard right ahead of elections for the European Parliament in May and increasing the controversial appeal of French comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. Instead, Hollande is likely to find himself fielding questions about his domestic arrangements, not least about whether Trierweiler will accompany him on his upcoming visit to Washington.

He shouldn’t invoke the privacy principle to shelter from such questions. The scandal hasn’t just raised queries about his judgment but about what kind of man he is and how committed he is to that founding principle of the republic — equality. His romantic history has pitted his girlfriends against each other, visiting humiliations on them and on other family members and reinforcing stereotypical notions about gender roles. Hollande’s women — mature, substantial, serious, impressive, professional people — find themselves distorted into ciphers. Royal, a leading politician, ran for President in 2007; Trierweiler has pursued a successful career as a journalist; Gayet’s long filmography contains some significant highlights. Yet as partners or former partners of Hollande they are known not for their achievements but as his conquests.

That a rackety love life puts Hollande in the mainstream of French tradition shouldn’t give him comfort. He is no worse than some of his predecessors at the Élysée Palace and better than some of his political contemporaries. He probably wouldn’t be President at all if Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s ambitions hadn’t become mired in unsavory allegations. But there is wide agreement, even within fractured, polarized France, that the country needs to change in order to flourish. Hollande promised change in his 2012 campaign for the presidency. He could start by putting his own house in order.

An earlier version of this article misstated François Hollande’s age. He is 59, not 58.

10 comments
AdrianSloan
AdrianSloan

Men in PUBLIC service should be measure by their accomplishments serving their term; PRIVATE life should stay PRIVATE. I can care less how many people they sleep with as long as they are not breaking any laws or abusing children (which to me is the ultimate sin). The problem with America is that many believe that having a puritan life equals excellence when it comes to public office and nothing can be FARTHER from the truth. I bet there are a great majority of politicians who have a whole lot of skeletons in their closets, they just haven't been caught hiding the bodies.

SVjeunefille
SVjeunefille

If I may be so chauvinistic, looking at a triptych of Royal-Trierweiler-Gayet ...one can only conclude that, 'love' is surely blind, and power, an aphrodesiac.

SVjeunefille
SVjeunefille

Finally -- a commentary of good sense on this latest installment of the long-running Elysée soap opera. The French are inured to it, alas.

DanBruce
DanBruce

The reported multiple affairs of the French president are almost identical with the multiple reported affairs of our former President. Both are causing people to question character and judgment. The women around the president of France seem to be as "forgiving" as an American First Lady was about the reported multiple affairs of her husband. It all seems rather sordid, whether it happens in France or America. As a member of the Democratic Party, I hope that we will put forth a person of character for president in 2016, like we did in 2008 and 2012, not someone who has years of taint in their resume. 

CrossWinds
CrossWinds

Proverbs 4:23
Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life.

Wondermere
Wondermere

@AdrianSloan 

Yes, there is a differentiation to be made between public and private, but (if the allegations are true and as reported) here's the problem in Mr Hollande's case: he used his publicly-funded security detail to escort him to his private assignations and then to attend upon him during them, even to the extent of fetching breakfast. Now Mr Hollande is protesting about the invasion of his private life, but hypocritically he seems to expect that his private life should be conducted on the public purse. That is where I cease to have any sympathy in this specific case with the public/private argument.

The other rather alarming question of the public interest in this case is one to which the author briefly referred: the reported ownership of the apartment by a recently jailed member of the Corsican mafia, of which Mr Hollande's alleged lover Ms Gayet would be well aware, as she is a close friend of the tenant, who happens to be the ex-wife of the mobster in question. If these allegations are correct, then they raise questions at the very least about Mr Hollande's competence and intelligence as a head of state.

As for your abhorrence of child abuse, which I share, I must say that abuse of children can take many forms, both mental and physical. The way in which Mr Hollande dumped Ms Royal, the mother of his children, for Ms Trierweiler, left his children so upset and scarred that one of them refused to speak to Hollande for over a year and still refuses to speak to Ms Trierweiler.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@AdrianSloan 

I believe the point is trustworthiness rather than advocating for a puritan lifestyle.  The man is the leader of France.  He's MARRIED, and you're thinking it's okay for him to have AFFAIRS?  REALLY???

What, marriage vows mean nothing in France?  

Trust in politicians in America is basically somewhat lower than trust in pond scum.  If a politician can't keep a vow he MADE in his private life, why the HELL should ANYONE trust him to keep vows or promises to his constituents?

The problem with France, apparently, is that they don't give a damn about trustworthiness in their politicians and leap to irrational conclusions about Americans in the first place.

HeatherLynn1
HeatherLynn1

@DeweySayenoff @AdrianSloan   Absolutely!  Enough of this "I'll have her till I don't feel like it anymore" bullcrap.   Women have enough pain to carry, how about if you cheat, we cut it off!!  Public style!

AmandaKendal
AmandaKendal

@HeatherLynn1 @DeweySayenoff @AdrianSloan Because of course, poor little put-upon victimised women never 'cheat', do they? 'We'll cut it off in public! Wah! Wah!' You sound like the Taliban – they'd doubtless agree with you.


It is none of your business what consenting adults do. It is none of anybody else's business either.


So stop foisting YOUR ethical attitudes – and in the case of Heather Lynn, your sense of victimhood – on everyone else and expecting everyone to abide by them.


Dear France: please don't give into that weird UK and US-style mix of puritanism and prurience, that combines in such unholy fashion with an obsessive commoditisation of private lives to the benefit of a small number of businessmen/women.