As a French native used to listening to English conversations, it has always amused me that the English language is peppered with French expressions such as ‘ménage à trois’ or ‘femme fatale’. Too often, ‘we’, the French, are easily perceived through that deformed linguistic prism: we are assumed to be the masters of love, seduction and extra-marital affairs!
However, since 4 September, I’ve begun to believe that there might be some truth to this observation: this was the day when France’s bookstores were inundated by copies of the former First Lady Valérie Trierweiler’s book ‘Merci pour le Moment’.¹
The publication of this tell-all book, worthy of Barbara Cartland (the prolific English romance novelist), is hopefully the final stage of a story that, in the opinion of this French citizen and perplexed spectator, started seven years ago.
A seven-year French saga
The current presidential mandate was predestined from the start to be a public and private life mash-up. In June 2007, Ségolène Royal’s break-up with François Hollande was officially announced after she had lost the presidential race against Nicolas Sarkozy. The French learned in the tabloids that Hollande had been cheating on her with a political journalist from Paris Match, Valérie Trierweiler, and that she was his new companion.
Thankfully, Nicolas Sarkozy’s divorce and remarriage within the first year of his presidency made the French forget about the unlucky contender and her private life. But change had already come. The French presidential statute had lost some of its untouchable aura. People considered Général de Gaulle or François Mitterrand (who had, against all odds, managed to conceal his double life and his daughter Mazarine) to be figures of a bygone age.
In May 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s incredible arrest in New York and global lynching in the media ruled him out of being the next French socialist candidate for the 2012 Presidential Election although the polls were in his favor. As a matter of fact, François Hollande, ironically, became the candidate by default. He probably had this scandal in mind too when he made the solemn promise to be ‘a normal president’.
A normal French President with an exposed private life
That sense of normality quickly vanished when Valérie Trierweiler’s tweet against Ségolène Royal made it clear she had a grudge against the mother of her companion’s four children.²
It was devastating for her image which she then tried rather unsuccessfully to make amiable until the ‘Julie Gayet-gate’ last January. The incident, in which François Hollande was caught by tabloid photographers visiting his young mistress, actress Julie Gayet – on a scooter no less – led to Trierweiler’s quick and unexpected repudiation. This won her over in the hearts of many, who would not have wished such humiliation to their worst enemy.
Little did the French people know that the worst was yet to come…
All the world’s a stage
French public opinion today on the saga is divided. Most journalists and politicians think this book is trashy and won’t read it. However many French people who don’t belong to the 13% that still support the President, argue it highlights the dark sides of his personality and that the people should be informed about it. Either way, the book topped Amazon France‘s bestsellers list in its first week. A whole nation has nonetheless become the obliged spectator of a show that disparages the Presidential function.
I don’t intend to be judgemental (it would be another debate entirely) but obviously, as of today, a tragic drama is being played at Palais de l’Elysée and a former First Lady is getting the royalties.
Do you think Valérie Trierweiler should have waited until the end of François Hollande’s five-year mandate before publishing her book? Or was she justified? Join the debate in the comments below, or on Twitter!
1. There is no such official statute in France as ‘First Lady’. She is usually referred to as ‘the President’s wife’. Since President Hollande was not married to Valérie Trierweiler, she was his ‘companion’.
2. Valerie Trierweiler’s famous tweet occurred in June 2012 for the General Elections. She gave her official support to Ségolène Royal’s opponent in the Socialist Party who defeated her.
1. Valérie by Parti Socialiste, via Flickr.
2. François Hollande by François Hollande, via Flickr.
3. Julie Gayet Cannes 2014 by Georges Biard, via Flickr.
4. Palais de l’Elysée by Thomas Faivre-Duboz, via Flickr.