13 Jan 2014

France’s first lady ‘ready to forgive’ Hollande over affair

France’s first lady is getting ready to leave hospital and is reportedly “ready to forgive” Francois Hollande over an alleged affair with an actress. But will the French public be so easily pacified?

The new year could hardly have started off worse for Francois Hollande. He was already facing rising unemployment figures and the lowest approval ratings ever for a French president.

Now he is dealing with claims that he is having an affair with a French actress – allegations that have resulted in his partner Valerie Trierweiler being admitted to hospital because of stress. And all that before the first official press conference of the year, due to be held on Tuesday afternoon.

The Parisien on Monday quoted a source close to Ms Trierweiler as saying that she is “ready to forgive” Mr Hollande, depending on what he has to say about his “intentions”.

‘She was completely stunned’

The presidential couple were undergoing a “few days of reflection”, the source said, adding that Mr Hollande had informed his partner of the claims himself.

“The news hit Valérie like a TGV hitting the buffers,” the Parisien quoted one of Ms Trierweiler’s friends as saying. “She was completely stunned. Of course she had heard the rumours going around Paris for weeks, but she wanted to believe they were false. To her, they [Trierweiler and Hollande] are still a couple”.

The first lady, a journalist for celebrity magazine Paris Match, has been in a relationship with the French president for several years. She appeared alongside him during his campaign, and has been received at the Elysee Palace with all the preferential treatment expected.

But rumours of Mr Hollande’s affair with the French actress Julie Gayet have been circulating for weeks. She previously admitted that he had visited her on set at a recent film and described him as “formidable” during his campaign trail.

Then Closer magazine published a series of photos showing the president’s bodyguards checking an apartment that Ms Gayet was in, then Mr Hollande travelling to the aprtment via scooter and staying there all night. The final – and very Parisian – piece of the puzzle was a photo of Mr Hollande’s bodyguard arriving with a bag of croissants the next morning at 8am.

Read more from Jonathan Rugman: French without tears at the Elysee Palace?

‘Is he the only one? I don’t think so’

Rumours of the affair have clearly shaken the first lady. But the eyes of the world have been on the French public to see how the country famous for its liberal attitude to relationships – and for its strict privacy laws – would react to their president’s misdemeanours. Former French president Francois Mitterrand kept a mistress for years, and they had a daughter who appeared in public at his funeral.

So what of attitudes towards the current president? Francois Hollande’s approval ratings had already dipped below 30 per cent during his time in office. But a poll by Ifop showed 84 percent of the public had not changed their opinion about Hollande following news of the affair and that 77 percent considered it “a private affair that only concerns Francois Hollande”.

Ifop analyst Frederic Dabi said: “In fact, he is already so unpopular that there is no change.”

When Channel 4 News took to the streets of Paris, the public appeared to confirm the poll findings. “He has a right to a private life, like anyone else,” said one passerby, while another said: “It doesn’t catch my attention. Is he the only one? I don’t think so. He’s the president. “Politicians have sex appeal, charisma – so they use it.”

‘Private life is private life’

But even the fact that journalists at a French magazine stayed up all night to try and catch the president out, marks a shift in attitudes across the channel, says French journalist Agnes Poirier. She points out that French judges have become increasingly less severe in cases where privacy is breached.

“Gossip magazines of the Closer kind, which did not exist in the Mitterrand era, are now a thriving force, with millions of readers,” she wrote in the Observer. “Trivia is of the essence. Every week, those publications put aside the money for the fines they will probably have to pay for breaching France’s strict privacy laws… Revealing celebrities’ intimacies has become ‘affordable’, almost a fact of life. And politicians have had to learn that the hard way.”

And when French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was questioned about the affair on Monday, he did not seem to be keen on the change.

“It’s (private life) something we’ve preserved in France. It’s not the case in all countries,” he said. “Today there is a perhaps a more voyeuristic, intense look at it. But I am simple in this domaine – private life is private life.”