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 un “gros 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.