The French First Lady has Found a Role for Herself: Making the President Look Stupid


by John Gaffney

France’s ‘Valériegate’ seems trivial, yet will possibly turn out to be one of the most important and problematic events of François Hollande’s presidency, in terms of the way both his presidency and his image are perceived from now on.

On 6 May 2012, Hollande was elected President of the French Republic, beating his ‘Bling Bling’ predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, in part, because Hollande was not ‘Bling’. On 17 June, Hollande was plebiscited again by gaining an absolute majority for his Socialist Party in the parliamentary elections that followed his victory. Now, the Left controls the National Assembly, the Senate, the Regional Councils and most of the large Town Halls. With the presidency in its hands as well, this means the Left controls virtually everything. Neither François Mitterrand as President (1981-1995), nor Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister (1997-2002), dreamed of such ‘full powers’ (the headline in Le Monde on 18 June – pleins pouvoirs, a historically problematic term in French, suggesting dictatorship). François Hollande and his Socialist Party now rule the roost – he doesn’t even need his Green allies or support from the Communist Party (though as the ‘Good King’ he will be nice to them). The ‘normal’, once eminently forgettable, Mr Hollande is the King of the Hill.

So what could possibly go wrong? Well something so trivial one would hardly believe it could be of any significance whatsoever has indeed gone very wrong. It might even have put an Exocet through Hollande’s presidency.

Trivial beyond belief. Between the two rounds of the parliamentary elections, on Tuesday 12 June, Hollande’s partner, Valérie Trierweiler (the ‘love of my life’ as he told Gala magazine in 2011; you can imagine how the former love of his life felt) tweeted–she has 80,000 followers, many of those, fellow journalists, so potentially millions of them–her support for the dissident Socialist candidate, Olivier Falorni, in the La Rochelle constituency, who, it soon turned out, was a friend. That was bad enough, supporting a candidate who did not have the backing of the President, but the tweet was a direct attack upon the official Socialist Party candidate, backed by the party and, personally, by the President. The official candidate was none other than Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner of 25 years, and the mother of his four children (and, no doubt, also once, the love of his life too). The incident gripped all the media, and threw the presidency, the government, and the party into disarray and incredulity. Why had she done it? The new President’s honeymoon with the French, in full swing, started shuddering to a halt in the tweet’s wake. It now seemed that Valérie Trierweiler harboured a blind jealousy for and deep dislike of Ségolène Royal. The public were aware of a coldness between the two women, but there was an assumption that the calm, wise-seeming, quiet Trierweiler was Zen in her triumph over Ségolène, yesterday’s woman – in both love and politics. Nothing was farther from the truth.

Ségolène Royal was the Party’s presidential candidate in 2007. In the aftermath of her defeat by Nicolas Sarkozy, she narrowly failed to take the leadership of the party in 2008; and in the primaries for the party’s candidacy, she gained only 6.7% of the party vote. She did, however, support Hollande in his 2012 campaign, and was rewarded with the respect of all the party barons, and an unofficial assurance that she would become the President of the National Assembly in the new 2012 Parliament. Throughout this period, her opponents in the party, like Laurent Fabius and Martine Aubry, came to terms with her, but her ‘rival’ had not, even though Trierweiler had been with Hollande since 2005, and Hollande’s relationship with Royal had been over for years.

The idea of seeing her at the summit of the Republic (President of the National Assembly is fourth highest office of State in protocol terms) over and over alongside François was obviously too much. After ‘the Tweet’ and the furore it created, it became clear to the public, and especially to those around the President, that not only did Trierweiler possess a barely controllable hatred of Royal, but it might erupt in some form at any time. This was politically dangerous for the President. Even the new Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, called her to order. Trieweiler had lobbied successfully to have references to Royal’s 2007 presidential candidacy removed from Hollande’s campaign video; she had lobbied at the Rennes campaign meeting of Royal and Hollande: they were not to touch, to speak together, to appear together (they did very briefly), nor kiss (they didn’t). On the night of his victory on 6 May, when Hollande did give Ségolène a public, reconciliatory peck on the cheek (the public had so been waiting for it!), she walked across the stage to Hollande – in front of the celebrating crowds at La Bastille – and said ‘Kiss me on the mouth’, which he did, rather less enthusiastically than she, it must be said. This all makes brilliant copy, which as a journalist she ought to have known, and it is both funny and pathetic. But these funny, pathetic, soap opera incidents have seriously affected Hollande’s two-month presidency. Why?

For a host of reasons. The first is that Trierweiler herself is a puzzling figure for a new ‘First Lady’. Somewhat aloof, professionally independent, protective of her own privacy (as she continually told the media in interviews); she was seen by many as the quiet power behind the throne (which she suddenly seemed in danger of knocking over). She stressed incessantly her desire to reflect Hollande’s ‘normal presidency’ and carry on with her job and independence, and perhaps live not in the Elysée, but in their ordinary flat in the city. She also said she did not want to be a ‘potiche’ (a trophy ‘First Lady’). Perhaps she would be like the radical Danielle Mitterrand, she mused in one interview (but that was long before First Ladies found themselves quite so much in the spotlight).

Her tweet certainly demonstrated her independence, but it was less like a gesture by Danielle Mitterrand (who went off to meet with Fidel Castro); or the magnificent and independent Eleanor Roosevelt, who Trierveiler also claimed to admire. Her tweet was more like a gesture by the headstrong and politically disastrous Cécilia Albéniz, Sarkozy’s second wife, and the great love of his life. She too interfered at the beginning of his presidency, damaging his image (among other things, it was she who organised the Fouquet’s dinner in the Champs Elysée), and then left him for another man! Cécilia had carried downmarket celebrity culture right into the Elysée. Hollande had been elected in part because the French disapproved of this ‘peoplisation’ of the presidency (it was so common!); and he spent most of his campaign distinguishing himself from Sarkozy on those grounds. He, as President, he intoned, would bring back decorum and gravitas to the office. Asserting that he would be ‘normal’, however, was a massive hostage to fortune. In fact, he claimed so often that his presidency would be so Goody Two-Shoes, he started to sound very sanctimonious; and then Valérie shot his presidency in the foot, less than two months into his five-year term.

We have mentioned the relative confusion by and about Valérie Trierweiler regarding her prospective role as ‘First Lady’ or, even worse, ‘First Girl Friend’, as the US press called her. What this marginally interesting issue actually raises, however, is the central issue of, not what the First Lady is, but what the presidency is. And in this case, what a ‘normal’ presidency might be. This, in turn, raises the complex and largely unexplained relationship between the character of the presidency and the character of the President, a modern version, perhaps, of the King’s Two Bodies, the temporal and the transcendental. And this incident, the tweet, coming so early in Hollande’s presidency, has significantly affected both bodies and more importantly, what Hollande himself would have himself and his presidency to be. Let us look at each in turn.

The Character of the Presidency

What is the nature of the office itself, and how did Hollande ‘envision’ it? He saw it as the antithesis of Sarkozy’s treatment of it. He would have it ‘normal’, ‘simple’, respectful and so on (all these, his expressions). Everything that Sarko was not. He would not be involved in every detail or present at every moment, like Sarkozy, and there would be decorum and poise in his presidency (Sarko was everywhere all of the time, and was called the ‘hyperpresident’). At the heart of this idea, is the traditional distinction between public life and private life, with an added implication, nay assertion, that each would be exemplary. The distinction was stressed repeatedly by Hollande. It was a moral issue. And, by implication – and a series of disparaging references to and, on inauguration day for example, treatment of, his predecessor as a kind of get-behind-me sinner – he was going to show us all how to be an exemplary President. Hollande was dismissive of his predecessor because Sarkozy was incapable of stopping the private self from crashing into the public President. Such piety would we see! So Valérie’s tweet hit like a bombshell, and threw Hollande’s depiction of the presidency and himself into comic relief and – and something lethal in France – ridicule.

The idea of Hollande as hypocritical was the immediate result. Other questions were immediately raised. He had personally contacted Royal and lent her support in her campaign, complimenting her personal election manifesto. Hence Valérie’s anger. Hollande’s act could have been seen as understandable given their history, but with the tweet, questions immediately were raised as to whether a President should become involved in the legislative campaign in a partisan way, particularly as he had said he would not. Yet here he was encouraging a very particular parliamentary candidate, who happened to be his ex-partner. Hypocrite! Tartuffe!

Valérie’s tweet clearly suggested her own inability to control herself. Yet, she is reputed to have told him when she learned of his personal support for Royal ‘you have no idea what I am capable of’. With such premeditation, perhaps she knew precisely how to control and direct her temper. Whether the one or the other, the display of a stupid unawareness of the consequences of her temper upon the President’s image was breathtaking. Whatever the reasons, her own image changed forever overnight. Over and above this, she had seemed vindictive towards the ‘loser’ in this odd ‘love triangle’ (and the mother of his children! Another mortal sin for the French).

Whichever of these was the case, the implications for the presidency itself were enormous. What if she had expressed, a view on say, Afghanistan, or the new Prime Minister, or Iran, or the minimum wage; and not only this, she was an unelected figure (and not, in fact, ‘even’ the President’s wife… considered an important factor by many observers). And what if a view expressed on one of the above was not the same as, or was even contradicting of, the view of the President? Trierweiler immediately became, and will remain for the duration of the presidency, a potentially loose cannon. For the rest of June, she was nowhere to be seen, which in some ways even more bizarre than her previous omnipresence. She wasn’t even there to meet Aung San Suu Kyi when she visited Paris at the end of the month. And the triviality of the whole affair simply increased the lampooning of the new President. This brings us to his own ‘character’.

The Character of the Man

The character – or rather the constructed character – of François Hollande as President was even more undermined than the character of the presidency itself, and brought into relief doubts about his resolve, doubts that had existed about him (just as doubts about Sarkozy’s volatile narcissism came back to haunt him once he was elected in 2007). The damage was all the greater because it is the constructed and imagined relationship between the President and the French which drives the Fifth Republic.

To make matters worse, as a result, a series of caricatures came in to play (as they did for Ségolène Royal when she was presidential candidate in 2007). Here, Hollande seemed like an indecisive man, and he also failed to respond to the whole issue, making him seem more ostrich-in-the-sand than otherwise; and all this in the context of two strong-minded women, both of whom had loved him deeply, throwing into even greater relief his very physical ordinariness, and lending a Feydeau farce quality to the affair, who now, in turn, took on caricatural female qualities, of the mother hurt, the vengeful mistress, currently locked in the warbdrobe, and so on. Royal was reported to have said some years earlier that Hollande could never take any decisions. Another of his rivals, yet another woman, Martine Aubry, during the Socialist primaries for the candidacy, referred to Hollande as the ‘Gauche molle’, the latter word having sexual connotations of impotence. Oh dear, the poor man. Now France is run by a man who cannot control his women, who, transformed into harpies, are fighting over him – slamming doors and making him want to hide –‘Mais n’te promène donc pas toute nue!’ as well as ‘Tartuffe’ are being performed in the Elysée Palace!

The French showed little interest in the parliamentary elections themselves; the only two ‘stories’ (out of 577), in fact, were the battle between Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the Pas-de-Calais and, latterly, the fight between Hollande’s ‘Ex’, Ségolène, and Valérie’s friend, Falorni. But Royal did not profit from Trierweiler’s attack; she was crushed by Falorni; gaining only 37% to his score of 63%! Oh dear, the poor woman. Her dream of becoming the President of the National Assembly was in ruins. And there is more trouble ahead. Royal feels – as probably does Hollande – that she must regain, if not the upper hand, then at least her dignity. A bloody contest for the leadership of the Socialist Party may lie ahead. Ségolène the new leader of the President’s party? Valérie would love that.

Just as the idea that Trierweiler might now become for the rest of his presidency potentially very embarrassing for the President, so too, at the level of ‘character’ does Hollande seem now permanently vulnerable to indecision. If you are looking for the root cause of a problem, Cherchez la Femme – look for the woman. It is a sexist cliché, but it has now taken hold of François Hollande’s presidency.

About the Author:

John Gaffney is a political commentator. He is Professor of Politics at Aston University, and Co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His two most recent publications are Political Leadership in France (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, paperback 2012) and Stardom in Postwar France (with Diana Holmes, Oxford: Berghahn, 2008, paperback 2011).