It’s official. They’ve broken up. Or, rather, he dumped her. Repudiated her. Formally and officially. I haven’t posted on French politics in the past couple of weeks, which doesn’t mean I haven’t been following it closely—both this affair and the (objectively more important) announcements in regard to economic policy. In addition to following current events closely I’ve been talking to the various people I know in the Socialist party (the base and pols at the local level; I presently have no one in the national leadership in my mobile phone carnet) or who are close to it. I’ll come back to the (objectively more important) policy stuff in a subsequent post but first this.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think this affair is disastrous for François Hollande and his image. Couples break up all the time, of course—that’s life—, but the circumstances surrounding this one—such as we’ve learned via the presse people (i.e. gossip magazines) over the past couple of weeks (and notably Closer, whose scoops have been confirmed officieusement by those close to Hollande)—leave a particularly bad taste. As it turns out, Hollande has been carrying on with Julie Gayet for some two years now, in what apparently is a real relationship with sentiments. Which means the thing started sometime in 2011 or early 2012, i.e. before the presidential election. During the campaign Valérie Trierweiler was presented as his cohabiting companion—his serious S.O.—and after the victory she assumed the position of première dame, with office in the Elysée, staff, etc. All this while François was seeing Julie on the side—and on numerous occasions, slipping out of the Elysée (on scooters, etc) for their trysts. And Valérie knew nothing about it. She apparently had no inkling. As I and many others have wondered, WTF was François thinking?! Did he really believe that he, as Président de la République in the second decade of the 21st century, could get away with such behavior without the presse people and Internet not learning about it and then making hay? and not to mention the mainstream elite media, which may be striving to keep the focus on the (objectively more important) domains of economic, social, foreign, etc policy but, in this day and age, can no longer pretend that a crisis in the Président de la République’s conjugal life is a taboo subject and off limits, particularly when everyone else is talking about it…
What leaves a bad taste here is that François has humiliated Valérie and in a very big and public way. He has shown himself to be a cad. A total jerk (and I’m using gentle words here; my language could be much stronger). Contrast this with Nicolas Sarkozy and his turbulent—and very public—romantic life in the months following his election victory in 2007. In his case, it was his wife (Cécilia) who left him. He did everything he could to keep her but she was the one who wanted out (and she had another man). Taking up with Carla Bruni only a few months after and the way he displayed it publicly—’Carla, c’est du sérieux’, etc—was unseemly to many—and particularly older conservatives—and made him look like he was debasing the office of the President of the Republic—which he was—, but at least he really was sérieux about Carla. Say what one will about Sarkozy—and I was no fan of his, loin s’en faut—but he is nice to women and did/does not humiliate them, and certainly not in public (e.g. politically speaking, he felt he had to separate himself from Rachida Dati and Rama Yade, but he cut these two headstrong women a lot of slack—more than he did their male counterparts—and did not diminish them when they were finally removed from their ministerial posts). Jacques Chirac: he was a chaud lapin, as was well-known, but was also a gentleman and who respected cultural codes and conventions; and while Bernadette may have privately suffered on account her husband’s dalliances, she was not humiliated publicly (and she remains the most popular and respected première dame of the Fifth Republic). François Mitterrand likewise: he was a grand séducteur and with a secret second family but had an arrangement with Danielle, who led her own life (and no doubt in every respect). Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a typical male of his social class and rank, an upstanding family man with mistress(es) on the side. As for Georges Pompidou and, above all, Charles de Gaulle, these were upright, conservative men of their generation; and de Gaulle was apparently shocked at accounts of John F. Kennedy’s libertinage; so much for clichés of philandering Frenchmen and puritanical Americans. And if one goes outre-Atlantique, Bill Clinton may have been a horndog but everything that was revealed about him during his presidency in this domain (Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky…) was about sex tout court—no sentiments—and was displayed in the public square by his political enemies for all to see. Bill tried to keep his private life discreet—and his indiscretions were, in fact, no big deal at all—and never humiliated Hillary. If Hillary was humiliated during the Lewinsky business, it was on account of Kenneth Starr and his henchmen in Congress and the media, not her husband.
A friend—who’s a retired haut fonctionnaire—explained the situation to me the other day: in the French bourgeoisie it is accepted that men will have an affair or mistress and this is okay, so long as he is discreet about it (bourgeois men nowadays do divorce their wives and marry their mistresses, but this is a relatively new phenomenon, of the current generations). He does not leave his wife (and mother of his children) and does not publicly expose her to the situation. And she may well have a lover herself but that’s okay too, as long as the marriage remains intact and social conventions are respected. The problem with Hollande here, according to my friend, is that he did not respect the conventions and codes of his class (indeed society). He lived with Ségolène Royal—also from the bourgeoisie—for 25 years and had four children with her, but they did not marry, even when she publicly made it clear (in 2006) that she was ready and willing. Their relationship ended when François took up with Valérie but he wouldn’t marry her either. And now he’s moved on to someone else—and while President of the Republic to boot. Culturally speaking, this does not fly, not for a man of his standing and who occupies the office that he does.
Hollande’s penchant for strong-willed women with strong, independent personalities could speak in his favor but still… The man, to those who don’t know him, looks like he has a problem with women. His inscrutable personality has been remarked upon by many, including his son, but now people will be making negative judgments about it. Every last woman with whom I have discussed the affair—from their early 20s to the troisième âge, plus those I’ve listened to/heard in the media—has been severe in her judgment of him as a man. President Hollande has discredited himself in the eyes of many women on the left (don’t even talk about those on the right). And this despite the fact that Valérie Trierweiler herself has not had a positive public image (despite her sizable following on Twitter—more than any politician apart from Hollande and Sarkozy—she is widely disliked; I have yet to hear any woman speak favorably of her; and she has few friends or allies in the Socialist party or Hollande’s entourage). And for her repudiation-to-be, announced by communiqué as she was set to visit India with a humanitarian organization: this is doubly humiliating.
I obviously have no idea what the political fallout of this will be but it cannot be good for Hollande. This is the last thing he—or France—needs at this moment, with his announcement of a bold but problematic shift in economic policy, and for which he will need all the public support he can muster. This thing may blow over with time but I doubt it, particularly as Valérie is not likely to fade from public life (as did Cécilia Sarkozy, who remarried and moved to New York). Looking ahead to 2017, I just don’t see how Hollande can credibly run for reelection.
I will say that I’m glad this isn’t Britain or the US, with the media circus that would have ensued. The French media has handled the affair as it should have, with a sort of division of labor: the elite press focusing on policy and relegating the personal business to the inside pages—and with highbrow debates on the changing boundaries of public and private life—and leaving scoops and speculation on Valérie and Julie to the weekly news and gossip magazines (France thankfully does not have British-style tabloids). And the TV talk shows—those I’ve seen—have made it a big story but not to the detriment of others.