Sex, Scandal and Soap Opera Precede a Key French Vote

The feud between President Hollande's current and former lovers has sparked a titillating controversy among French Socialists. But the right has to deal with a thinly disguised novelization of backroom scandals in the stronghold of ex-President Sarkozy

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Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty Images

Partner of French President François Hollande, First Lady Valérie Trierweiler

France is divided by gall — and three women are contributing a fair share of bile. It all began this week with public swipes traded by France’s First Lady and her predecessor as President François Hollande’s life partner — a clash that’s created p.r. and electoral headaches for the Élysée. Thursday then saw another woman from the world of French politics dishing dirt on former President Nicolas Sarkozy with a roman à clef rooted in his circle of intimates and allies.

Fallout continues from Tuesday’s controversial bolt-from-the-blue tweet by French First Lady Valérie Trierweiler. In it, Trierweiler endorsed a dissident leftist candidate opposing Hollande’s ex-partner of nearly 30 years, Ségolène Royal, in the June 17 legislative runoff elections. Trierweiler’s words have posed problems for the President and officials from his Socialist Party (PS).

(PHOTOS: Francois Hollande Sworn in as President of France)

First was the propriety of Trierweiler publicly going against the officially designated PS candidate, Royal, who had been endorsed by her former companion Hollande. That represented a potentially damaging break of Socialist ranks just as the left hopes to regain control of Parliament to end a decade of domination by the right. The second source of embarrassment from Trierweiler’s foray into politics was the general interpretation by pundits and pols alike that it was a personal attack on Royal — a woman Trierweiler reportedly dislikes and remains jealously wary of. Hollande’s endorsement of the mother of his children was believed to be the catalyst for Trierweiler’s tweet wishing good luck to Royal’s electoral rival.

The third problem: How do PS leaders now tell the boss’s girlfriend to shut up? “Everyone must stay in their place,” Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said during a French TV interview on Wednesday that mixed mild remonstration for the tweeting First Lady with understanding qualifiers. “Her role should be one of discretion, but that’s not an easy one to assume.”

Were that not enough, on Wednesday, Royal struck back by noting the personal and political bonds that remain between her and Hollande — whether Trierweiler likes them or not. “I demand the respect due to a mother whose children hear the things said about her,” Royal told a campaign crowd on Wednesday, referring to the progeny she produced with Hollande long before the Élysée (or Trierweiler) ever came into the picture. Facing what polls say is a probable legislative defeat on Sunday, Royal on Thursday told Libération that Trierweiler’s endorsement of her rival represented “a violent blow” to Socialist hopes of capturing what had been considered a safe seat. Trierweiler has largely remained silent as the controversy has grown — dovetailing the Hollande-government strategy of letting it flame out and die.

(MORE: Tweet Attack: French First Lady Swipes at President’s Former Partner)

Silence is not an option for Sarkozy, his intimates and allies, who find themselves depicted in a new book as scheming, treacherous and ruthless in advancing their personal and political interests. Published on Thursday to considerable media interest, The Monarch, His Son, His Fief is a novelized account of the intrigue, backstabbing and clash of gigantic egos in the western Paris suburbs that have served as Sarkozy’s political stronghold. Though names used have been changed, there’s little disguising the real-life characters who inspired the novel. Indeed, author Marie-Célie Guillaume has acknowledged in prepublication interviews that there’s little daylight between public figures and their literary doppelgängers — including Sarkozy (a.k.a. Rocky), his politician son Jean (the Dauphin) and former Interior Minister Claude Guéant (Prefect Tigellin). Guillaume says all the acts of betrayal, career sabotage and low blows between supposed conservative allies were based on events that she personally witnessed or had evolved around her.

So too, Guillaume stresses, were frequent sexual propositions inflicted on women by the male characters — including the monarch himself. Indeed, inappropriate behavior and full-on sexual harassment are frequent enough in the pages of the book that readers may wonder how French politics avoided a DSK-grade scandal as long as it did. “I couldn’t write a book on politics without discussing the relationship between power and sex,” Guillaume told weekly magazine Marianne. “All women working around politics — whether they’re elected officials, assistants or journalists — are confronted sooner or later with this type of situation. Everyone knows about it, but no one talks about it.”

(MORE: Leftists Lead French Parliamentary Vote)

It’s difficult to write Guillaume off as a fantasist spouting falsehoods — as some fuming conservatives are already trying to do. Guillaume says she drew her material from years of working within the heart of Sarkozy’s political clique as the chief of staff of Patrick Devedjian, a former Sarkozy loyalist and political lieutenant. Simply called the Armenian in the book, Devedjian in real life wound up the target of what he and others have said was an Élysée-ordered end to his career after he’d been made the scapegoat for a scandal arising from Jean Sarkozy’s political ascendancy.

Devedjian, however, fought back by going public with allegations that the President’s cohorts were conspiring against him. Public sympathy helped Devedjian to win re-election as head of the regional council in western Paris and to try to “clean Augeas’ stable” by breaking the influence Sarkozy and his devotees still wield in the area. Guillaume denies that she’s settling Devedjian’s scores with Sarkozy by publishing the book.