Since taking over in May , Francois Hollande has repeatedly asked the French to regard him as a “normal” president.
Well, maybe. But it would be easier if his first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, were not a live-in girlfriend.
It would also be easier if he had married the woman he lived with for nearly three decades and had four children with before taking up with Trierweiler, a political reporter who wants to carry on as an independent journalist with an office near the president’s. And it would certainly be easier if the two women were not the subject of several books just out that describe in shudder-inducing detail how they elbowed for prominence as Hollande rose to the presidency.
“For a president who wants to be normal, this is not a great record,” said Philippe Allary, a physical therapist who prefers former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
The public airing of Hollande’s family troubles — one reviewer wondered whether to describe them as “vaudeville or tragedy” — has undercut the president’s standing, according to his son; his former companion, Segolene Royal; and independent analysts, because it depicts him as unable to impose his will on two obviously headstrong women who cannot stand each other.
“This is being integrated into the general perception of Hollande, that he is unprepared to be president,” said Nicole Bacharan, a researcher associated with the Political Science Institute in Paris. Hollande’s reputation as indecisive and afraid of confrontation was set aside in the euphoria of his election, she noted, “but now it is coming back with a vengeance.”
France has long been known as a country that tolerates romance and extramarital sex in a way that would be impossible in U.S. politics. But in the past half-dozen years, it has been treated to a string of soap operas at the pinnacle of power that, in the eyes of many observers, have permanently shattered the barriers that long separated private and public lives in France.
After first ladies who stood solidly behind presidents Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, Sarkozy opened the door to “Dallas” as he won the presidency and took office in 2007. More or less publicly, he was at the time struggling to prevent his second wife, Cecilia, a former model, from running off with a buttery-smooth event planner.
He failed, and Cecilia left for a new life in New York. Within weeks of moving into the Elysee Palace, however, Sarkozy met Carla Bruni Tedeschi, another ex-model. After a swift courtship that included much-photographed excursions to Disneyland Paris and the ruins of Petra in Jordan, they were married, and the willowy Carla became a celebrity first lady — and later a celebrity mother.
Then came Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Socialist Party luminary and International Monetary Fund chief who was widely rated as the candidate who would shoot down Sarkozy in the 2012 election. But that was before he was arrested in May 2011 over allegations of sexual assault in a New York hotel room.
The charges eventually were dropped, but not before a weeks-long media frenzy in which Strauss was depicted in lurid detail as a longtime sexual predator. Then he was accused of attempted rape in France and, finally, charged with helping procure prostitutes for sex parties in Washington, Paris and elsewhere. When last heard from, Strauss-Kahn’s rich wife had ejected him from their posh Paris apartment, and he was photographed shopping for groceries alone.
Bacharan suggested that the months of sometimes sordid coverage of Strauss-Kahn may have dampened media and public interest this fall in the new books detailing the fight over Hollande, 58, between his past and present lovers. French journalists may also have wondered whether they went too far in violating the old code, she said, noting that many of them have friendly ties to Hollande, a glad-hander always willing to trade gossip.
In any case, the latest volley of revelations was fired Monday by Royal, also 58, who was Hollande’s partner since graduate school, his political soul mate, the mother of his children and the Socialist Party’s unsuccessful candidate for president in 2007. She told the newspaper Le Figaro that all the talk of her enduring rivalry with Trierweiler, 47, was bad for the president’s image.
“The political dignity has been damaged,” she said, adding in an apparent jab at Trierweiler’s relationship with him, “not the profound respect and friendship we have for one another.”
Royal also told the paper that Hollande had offered her the post of justice minister when he was forming his government but that she turned it down to run for Parliament. Having lost, she said, she is awaiting other job offers from Hollande.
According to the books, however, Trierweiler has told Hollande that she will not tolerate having Royal in the government or seeing photos of the two of them working together.
Trierweiler’s concerns were so intense before the election that, according to the books, she prevailed on the campaign’s communications director to erase Royal from a biographical film on Hollande and block her from appearing at a campaign ceremony. A senior Hollande adviser later warned him that he could face trouble unless Trierweiler was brought under control, the books report.
“You’re right,” Hollande is quoted as saying. “Could you talk to her about it?”
In addition to entertaining readers, the books — “Between Two Fires,” by Anna Cabana and Anne Rosencher; “The Ex,” by Sylvain Courage; and “The Favorite,” by Laurent Greilsamer — have reminded France of a now-notorious tweet sent June 12 by Trierweiler in support of Royal’s opponent in her close parliamentary race. The president’s companion acted after she learned that Hollande had sent a message of support for Royal despite a pledge to stay out of legislative elections.
Asked about the spat in his first interview as president two days later, Hollande said stiffly: “I consider that private affairs should be handled in private. And I have told the people close to me that they should accept this principle scrupulously.”