The story is as old as the Bible: A powerful man strays from his life partner into the arms of a younger woman and is caught red-handed. Usually, the next chapter is devoted to doling out sympathy to the woman he has betrayed.
But things aren’t so simple in France.
For nearly three weeks, the world’s press has seized on every available detail, true or false, about the love life of President François Hollande. The frenzy began with the explosive January 10 photos in a French gossip magazine, allegedly showing Hollande sneaking out of the Elysée Palace on the back of a motorcycle for a late-night tryst with French actress Julie Gayet, and have continued since. Notably lacking from the coverage in France, so far, has been much sympathy for the Hollande’s now-former partner, Valerie Trierweiler (he announced their split on Saturday).
A mother of three children, Trierweiler, 48, put her journalistic career at Paris Match magazine on hold when Hollande (whom she never married) ran for president. She now faces having to rebuild her personal and professional life. Yet despite that, Trierweiler has been woefully short of sympathizers during weeks of wall-to-wall coverage on television. “Among some [Elysée] advisors there was some degree of dislike. Others were more reserved about her,” says Thierry Arnaud, head of the political service at the French 24-hour news channel BFM-TV. “But what was striking as this story developed was how few people were willing to go public and defend her.”
In opinion polls, about three-quarters of French people say that their president’s love life has no bearing on their opinions about him as a leader — although the weeks of obsessive talk in Paris about his alleged romance seems to cast doubt on that assertion. And cynically, some wonder whether the story might even boost Hollande’s ratings, which currently stand at about 24%, thanks to double-digit unemployment rates and a huge public deficit. “It’ll make him more popular, because Julie Gayet is popular,” says Jean-Philippe Filiu, a retired French diplomat who has traveled with Hollande. He contrasts Trierweiler’s “always tense” demeanor with that of 41-year-old, fresh-faced Gayet. “She [Gayet] is the quintessential smart French girl,” Filiu says.
Leaving aside that characterization, Trierweiler’s own missteps since Hollande was elected 20 months ago have left her especially isolated at this crucial moment. She has admitted in interviews that she struggled to find her feet as the president’s partner — the First Lady has no official status in France — and had consulted Michele Obama on the question. She won no friends with an early remark saying she did not want to become a “potiche” (ornament, or vase) in the Elysée. That came off badly, says Colombe Pringle, editorial consultant for the celebrity magazine Point de Vue. “It was as though being First Lady was not a job,” she says.
But the worst faux pas came within just weeks of Hollande’s victory in May 2012, during the hard-fought elections for France’s National Assembly, when Trierweiler, a heavy Twitter user, tweeted her support for a candidate who was running against Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, with whom he lived for many years (and whom he finally left for Trierweiler). Royal lost the race, dashing Hollande’s hopes for having her as an ally in the fractious parliament.
Though Trierweiler tried hard to make amends for her mistake in subsequent posts, the tweet was never forgotten. As the months went on, the doubts about her emerged at odd moments. While Hollande was on a visit inside France one day, a woman in the crowd bluntly told him, “don’t marry Valérie Trierweiler, we don’t like her,” leaving the president speechless; the video of the scene played heavily on French TV. “Even French feminists felt no empathy for her,” Pringle says. “Not until we got the story of the mistress, and then the hospital, and suddenly we thought, maybe we ought to be more sympathetic. But there had been too many missteps.”
But three weeks into the story, there are signs that Hollande could yet pay the price politically for his behavior, especially among women voters. Opposition politicians have seized on the alleged affair to paint the president as callous in his dealings with women. The fact that his relationship with Trierweiler began long before he left Royal, and that the gossip magazines have asserted that he began his affair with Gayet as long as two years ago, has added to that impression. So too did the president’s formal breakup announcement: He issued a one-line statement on the telephone to the Agence France Presse news agency last Saturday, saying, “ I wish to make it known that I have ended my partnership with Valerie Trierweiler.”
The fact that Hollande omitted to mention Trierweiler, or for that matter any words of pain or remorse, outraged his critics, and finally uncorked the backlash, albeit small, that had not been seen until this week. “I felt like I was reading a lay-off letter, rather than a letter of a break-up,” conservative politician Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, said on French television Monday night. Hollande’s left-wing challenger for president, Jean-Luc Melanchon, called the president’s breakup announcement “the statement of an oaf.”
Perhaps trying to cut as much distance as possible from her life’s implosion, Trierweiler flew to Mumbai on Sunday — a day after her public breakup — to attend a charity event that had been scheduled long before the current drama. Yet even from a distance of 4,300 miles she seemed unable to leave it all behind, telling a clutch of reporters that the pressures and internal tensions within the Elysée had torn her and Hollande’s relationship apart, and suggesting that they might still be together if Hollande had not won the presidential election in May, 2012. Instead, she said she had faced “low-blows” and “backstabbing” during their 20 months in the Elysée. With that part of her life over she may find that the blows do not entirely stop, as France continues its transformation from a country that once barely commented on the private lives of public officials and their families to one that considers them fair game.