Fiona McCade: Memoirs may hail new chapter for France

French President Francois Hollande's spurned girlfriend and journalist Valerie Trierweiler's novel. Picture: Getty
French President Francois Hollande's spurned girlfriend and journalist Valerie Trierweiler's novel. Picture: Getty
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The book written by the president’s former lover Valérie Trierweiler is causing an uproar across the Channel, writes Fiona McCade

The moment when Britain finally entered the 20th century came in October 1960. Penguin Books were being prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, for publishing DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The last, astonishing, gasp of the Victorian establishment came when the prosecuting counsel asked the jury, in all seriousness: “Would you approve of your young sons, young daughters – because girls can read as well as boys – reading this book? Is it a book that you would have lying around in your own house? Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”

With a record like that, I’d have thought we would have been well behind our more radical neighbour, France, when it came to reaching the 21st century, but no. We’ve definitely arrived, but they’re not there yet.

This week, Valérie Trierweiler, the former girlfriend of president François Hollande, published her memoirs of their time together. Given that he cheated on her, and it was only in January this year that she was unceremoniously bumped from her coveted position at his side, you can imagine that Trierweiler has quite a lot to say about Francois.

Merci Pour Ce Moment [Thank You For This Moment] is 320 pages of raw revenge; served on ice and with a side order of vitriol. According to Trierweiler, Hollande is the quintessential, snobbish, decadent champagne socialist, who loves luxury, “despises” the poor, sneers at disabled athletes for “commercialising” their handicaps, lies, abuses women, and even drugs her to keep her quiet.

To British eyes, so jaded by political scandals and almost immune to shock as far as the lives of our leaders are concerned, this is just average-score titillation, but also good riddance to a man who dismissed his devastated consort of a decade with a mere 18-word declaration that he had ended their relationship. We’ve been there, done that and weathered the storm that was Diana: Her True Story.

But France is not Britain and now I’m wondering if the French ruling elite are even in the same century as us. First of all, none of this could have happened in Britain. If our prime minister had been photographed sneaking in and out of his mistress’s flat – as Hollande was – he would have had to go. The Brits don’t like cheats – at least, we don’t like the ones that get found out. Secondly, if our first lady had been scorned then dumped, she would be allowed to vent her spleen however she liked. We would view this as her right, should she choose to indulge herself. In France, however, the feeling is very different.

The upper echelons of French society have always prided themselves on their civilised restraint. People have affairs – important people have affairs – but nobody is supposed to notice, never mind be upset by it. As far as they are concerned, by getting mad, Trierweiler is showing her lowly roots.

Trierweiler is also betraying a deeply conservative, almost ancien régime belief that the private lives of the French governing class are nobody’s business but their own. Even the French press bow to this conspiracy of silence, which is how former president François Mitterrand managed to raise two separate families – one legitimate, one not – both financed by the French taxpayer, but without any of the taxpayers finding out until he was safely dead.

However, Trierweiler is no longer important. Therefore, according to French rules, she should shut up and disappear, and the powerful are lining up to say so.

For example, Manuel Valls, the prime minister, says she lacks “respect”, “dignity” and she is a “menace to public life”. Marine Le Pen, Hollande’s greatest political rival, called the book “a dishonour for France”. Leftist commentator Renaud Dély wrote that Trierweiler had attacked “civic spirit” and “our institutions” and that everything was her “fault”.

I would say to the likes of Valls, Le Pen and Dély that this book is one lone woman’s version of a well-documented event, which was caused by one man’s infidelity, and if your “public life”, “civic spirit” and “institutions” can’t take it, they must be pretty shaky to start with. And can it really be all Trierweiler’s “fault”? Is she actually the one who has brought “dishonour” to France? The presidency is damaged, but Hollande did that all on his own, without any help from his girlfriends.

Even more laughable, from the British perspective, is the reaction of certain French booksellers, who have taken it upon themselves to express the outrage and disdain of the Parisian intelligentsia by refusing to stock Trierweiler’s tome. Some bookshops are displaying signs in their windows saying things like: “This bookshop isn’t planning on becoming an outlet for Ms Trierweiler’s dirty laundry.” How very civilised, how very high-brow. The aristocrats of the ancien régime would be proud. Nevertheless, I bet they stock de Sade.

I’m no fan of Trierweiler. She’s not above a bit of infidelity herself, and she only realised that Hollande was an idiot after he dumped her. Most people had worked that out way before then. If she’d had any friends, they would have warned her off long ago.

However, she has a right to be heard and the French people have the right to hear her. Unfortunately, the powers that be in Paris seem terribly afraid that such outspokenness might cause the peasants to revolt.

Just days ago, Dély wrote: “To conserve some semblance of dignity the [French] citizen must demand the right not to know what happens in the president’s bedroom”. That sentence is so condescending, so aloof, so astonishingly out of touch with a public which is buying Trierweiler’s book by the hundred thousand, it could almost have been written in 1789.

The French ruling class doesn’t approve of the common people reading Merci Pour Ce Moment, but there’s nothing it can do. Let’s hope, for France’s sake, that this means the 18th century is finally over.