Hollande's romances turn into a political spectacle

He is testing France’s tolerance for private indiscretion and leaving himself vulnerable to ridicule.

As a candidate for the French presidency in 2012, François Hollande promised to be more boring spouse than flamboyant seducer. Determined to set himself apart from the man he was seeking to unseat — Nicolas Sarkozy, whose marriage to the former supermodel Carla Bruni had helped make him tabloid fodder —  Hollande proclaimed, “I, president of the republic, will make sure that my behavior is exemplary at every moment.”

Twenty months into his presidency, Hollande’s campaign pledge is faring even less well than the unemployment-cursed French economy. Caught in a clandestine affair that is more bedroom farce than Shakespearean drama — a beautiful actress, a scorned woman at home, surreptitious comings and goings on a most unpresidential scooter — Hollande is testing the limits of France’s tolerance for private indiscretion and leaving himself vulnerable to ridicule.

The episode has revealed a colder, more politically calculating side to Hollande, familiar to those around him but largely hidden from public view. His judgment, not least about his personal security, has been called into question. Already weighed down by historically low support in the polls, he also faces the challenge of keeping the affair from undercutting his ability to push through an ambitious new agenda aimed at restoring France’s fading global competitiveness and moving his Socialist Party to the centre.

One big test could come next month, when he will travel to Washington for a state visit with president Obama. Hollande’s official partner, Valérie Trierweiler, was scheduled to accompany him in her role as de facto first lady, but now the visit seems likely to attract considerable attention for his eventual choice of, or lack of, a travelling companion. “He’s always hated when politics turned into a spectacle, and now he finds himself right in the middle of one,” Julien Dray, a prominent Socialist, said in an interview. “The question is how he will handle it over the long term. If this becomes vaudeville, it could damage his presidency.”

Hollande, 59, has had little respite since a magazine, Closer, caught him meeting at an apartment around the corner from the Élysée Palace with Julie Gayet, a 41-year-old film actress who has played roles as varied as a foreign ministry official, a hairdresser and an addict, with nude scenes. The magazine published pictures of him arriving for his trysts on a scooter, wearing a helmet with the visor down, but apparently recognisable by his sensible black lace-up shoes.

Members of the French public at first took the revelations in their usual sexually sophisticated stride, but not Ms Trierweiler. People who know her well said she was so devastated by the news that she checked herself into a hospital.

Hollande visited only once during her eight-day stay. Since leaving the hospital over the weekend (and thanking supporters via Twitter for their good wishes), she has been resting at La Lanterne, the presidential getaway at Versailles. Paris Match, where Ms Trierweiler has remained employed as a journalist even while serving as Hollande’s official consort, reported on its website that the president had asked her for more time.

Hollande said Monday in a news conference in the Netherlands that Ms Trierweiler was “getting better,” but he did not respond to the question of whether she was France’s first lady. If he does leave her, it will be his second high-profile breakup in seven years, after the end of his 25-year relationship with Ségolène Royal, a Socialist Party presidential candidate in 2007 and the mother of their four children.

New chapter

Hollande’s personal drama was playing out over the past two weeks as he was making one of the most substantive decisions of his term so far, proposing to cut corporate taxes and reduce public spending, moves that unnerved the left wing of his Socialist Party but also drew plaudits from the business world.

The confluence of the two story lines made Hollande, who had been caricatured as wobbly as a popular French custard, into a more complex figure. To his supporters, this is the start of a new chapter for Hollande in which he is emerging as a more mature and pragmatic leader who may be freed from what had become a complicated relationship with Trierweiler.

They are banking on the assumption that what would be a media circus to an American president will be treated as a sideshow by the French, and that the story will die down. “There is a new Hollande, more in harmony with himself,” said one of his close friends. Much will depend on what happens in the coming weeks, especially whether Trierweiler speaks publicly. But more than his predecessors in the pre-Twitter era, who could count on journalists to keep most private behavior by public officials out of the limelight, Hollande now finds himself operating in a climate of more intensive and intrusive scrutiny. Perhaps more worrisome for him is that potentially his support among women could erode.

As leader of the Socialist Party, he campaigned for Ms Royal when she ran for president in 2007. Both of them hid the fact that he had already left her for Trierweiler. French journalists who knew about the breakup did not write about it until  Royal announced it after the election. “He who has betrayed will betray,”  Royal said afterwards.

Hollande has never been the marrying kind — a rarity for high-ranking politicians, although not for many French couples. Not that  Royal was unwilling to tie the knot. Asked about marriage in a joint television interview in 2006 during the prelude to her presidential campaign, she replied mischievously: “We love each other, so I’m expecting him to propose. François, do you want to marry me?”

Hollande chuckled, awkwardly, and said nothing. “You see — he still hesitates!” Royal said. “No, this is not what I mean,” Hollande said. “I’ll answer you after the programme.” Apparently his answer was no.

Hollande never married Trierweiler either, even though he described her in an interview with Gala magazine in October 2010 as “the woman of my life.” By the following February, he had curbed his enthusiasm. “The sentence was maladroit,” he said. “I should have said, ‘She is the woman of my life today.’ ”

Not only did he not marry Trierweiler when he became president, he also agreed that she could keep working for Paris Match, although she stopped covering politics. Hollande and his aides depicted it as an example of a modern partnership rather than a conflict of interest. She was installed as the de facto first lady with offices in the east wing of the Élysée Palace, a staff of four and a monthly budget of about $27,000.

Early in his presidency, he wanted the freedom to move in and out of the Élysée Palace as he pleased. In “So Far, Everything’s Going Badly,” a new book on the Hollande presidency, the author, Cécile Amar, said that shortly after Hollande was elected, he asked members of the Élysée staff, “How do I get out without people seeing me?” Concerned that he might try to escape the Élysée on his motor scooter, his aides sold it, Amar wrote.

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