Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Is this the Élysée or Melrose Place?

The French papers can hardly contain their excitement this morning over the catty details of the first scandal to come out of the Élysée Palace since the election of Socialist François Hollande – the self-styled “Mr. Normal”.

Journalist Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s partner (Americans – ‘partner’ is French for ‘unmarried fornicator’) made the faux pas of endorsing a rebel challenger to Socialist party standardbearer Segolene Royal in this Sunday’s elections for the French Parliament. This might seem fairly uninteresting, until you add the fact that Royale, herself the 2007 presidential candidate for the Socialists, is the former partner of Hollande and they have four children together.

The offending endorsement of challenger Olivier Falorni from the French first lady was made in a tweet posted by Trierweiler yesterday. The reaction from Hollande’s fellow Socialists has been furious. They have pointed out that not only has the tweet exacerbated the inter-party tensions and in a way that could cost the Socialists seats on Sunday, it also seems grotesque on a personal level. For the first lady to go out of her way to publicly insult and humiliate the mother of her partner’s four children seems exceptionally cruel, French politician Daniel Cohn Bennett said. But it seems entirely consistent with her previous behaviour toward Royal (more on that later).

valtrier Valerie Trierweiler Courage à Olivier Falorni qui n'a pas démérité, qui se bat aux côtés des rochelais depuis tant d' années dans un engagement désintéressé. via Twitter for iPhone Favorite Retweet Reply

“C’est Dallas à l'Élysée!” declared the right-leaning Le Figaro newspaper today, referring to the popular 1980’s drama. Left-leaning Le Monde writes that the tweet completely upstaged a major speech the French president was due to give today. The foreign press is also obsessed with the story. The New York Times said today it was “like a scene from Molière - or from Macbeth”. The UK’s Daily Telegraph is dubbing it “the war of the roses”.

Royal and Hollande were together for 23 years. Though never married, they raised four children together and were partners in life as well as in politics. But their relationship had long fizzled by the time of Royal’s 2007 presidential campaign, and it was widely understood that they were staying together only for the sake of the campaign. Nicolas Sarkozy also stayed in a fictitious relationship with his wife Cécilia Sarkozy during the campaign.

The Sarkozies divorced shortly after he was elected, and Royale and her partner also separated after the campaign. But their separation was messy and acrimonious, manifesting itself in a dramatic party leadership showdown in 2008.

Hollande’s new relationship, which actually began in 2005 while he was still living with Royal, seemed to only make that bad blood worse. According to this rather unflattering portrait of Trierweiler from the Daily Telegraph in May, she has been working to sabotage her partner’s former lover almost from day one. The article quotes sources saying she sends angry texts to journalists who mention Hollande’s relationship with Royal, and appeared to forbid her husband from mentioning her in interviews. She also, according to the paper, worked to humiliate and ostracize Royal during Hollande’s presidential campaign this year. According to the paper:
Despite loyally supporting Hollande as he fought for the party’s nomination, Royal was relegated at the campaign launch to a distant seat, while Trierweiler stood close to her lover. Aides said Royal collapsed in tears afterwards.
This has created problems because as two senior figures in the Socialist party, Hollande and Royal must maintain a working relationship. Trierweiler appears to be doing everything she can to sabotage that relationship, even going so far as to try to ensure Royal’s defeat in the legislative elections in the hope that she will quit politics.

The whole incident may be inspiring a bit of tongue-in-cheek fun on the part of the media, but the reality is this is turning into a serious headache for Hollande that needs to be dealt with urgently. In a mere matter of weeks his partner's reputation with the public has sunk to unprecedented depths. Given that Mr. Hollande is not only France’s leader but also its head of state (the equivalent of the Queen in the UK), the behaviour and perceived influence of his partner is important.

In the end Trierweiler’s ham-handed attempt to sabotage her partner’s former lover may actually work in Royal’s favour – generating sympathy. But perhaps the strangest part of all of this is Trierweiler’s apparent obliviousness to how this all looks. It is no small irony that before she entered the Élysée she was making none-too-subtle barbs against her predecessor Carla Bruni, telling an interviewer that she would not be a “potiche” (trophy wife) and would be better equipped for a life in French politics. "She [Bruni] came from a world totally alien to that of politics,” Trierweiler said. “She did not necessarily know the political codes."

That seems an odd statement now, given that Bruni seemed to perform her role as first lady flawlessly while Trierweiler has managed to make herself one of the most hated women in France within a matter of weeks.

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