In A public appearance notable mostly for what was not said, French president François Hollande was last night keen to take questions about his plans for the country’s economy – and equally keen to divulge little of his rumoured affair with an actress.
Mr Hollande’s partner, journalist Valérie Trierweiler, has been in hospital since Friday, when Closer magazine published photos it said proved Mr Hollande’s liaison with Julie Gayet. The pictures included one of a man the magazine said was Mr Hollande being taken by moped to an apartment where Ms Gayet waited.
The report has heaped new pressure on the already unpopular president.
Following a major economic policy speech yesterday in which he said he would cut public spending by €50 billion (about £41bn) in 2015-17 and ease the tax burden on companies, he was asked by a deferential French press corps whether Ms Trierweiler remains the country’s first lady. In his first comments since the magazine report, Mr Hollande responded: “Everyone in his or her personal life can go through ordeals – that’s the case with us.”
Mr Hollande said his “indignation is total” over the report, calling it a “violation that touches a personal liberty”. He did not say whether the report was true.
The latest revelations have raised questions about the role of “first lady” in France. Ms Trierweiler is the first person to hold the post who was not married to the president.
Mr Hollande said he will clarify who the first lady is before an official trip to the United States on 11 February.
He has said state funds spent on the first lady should be made public – and “as small as possible”. The first lady doesn’t have formal status, but in practice they have an office in the presidential palace and a small staff.
The issue even reached the floor of parliament yesterday. A leading MP from the opposition conservative UMP party accused the president of taking unreasonable risks with his security.
Christian Jacob said: “The president should be aware of the level of responsibility he exercises, be aware that his role is greater than his person, and be aware that he incarnates the image of France in the eyes of the world.”
Asked if his security was compromised, Mr Hollande said: “My security is assured everywhere, and at any moment … when I travel on a private basis, I have protection that is less suffocating. But I am protected everywhere.”
However, photographer Sebastien Valiela said he was surprised at the lack of security for Mr Hollande. Mr Valiela said in a TV interview: “To go to the rendezvous with Julie Gayet, he [Mr Hollande] was taking some risks. As soon as he got into the apartment, his guards left.”
Twenty years ago, Mr Valiela rocked France’s political establishment with images that revealed the secret family of then-president François Mitterrand, showing the Socialist leader with the daughter he had never publicly acknowledged.
François Rebsamen, a Socialist MP who counts himself among Mr Hollande’s friends, said the revelations showed the entire idea of a first lady was obsolete.
In a radio interview, he said: “François Hollande himself said it at one point, you elect a person. And then this person can live alone, can be single, can live with another man or a woman. It’s no-one’s business and it doesn’t come into play.”
Mr Hollande – who has four children from a previous relationship with Socialist politician Ségolène Royal – was elected as a “Monsieur Normal” in a backlash against his flamboyant predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Political analyst Dominique Moisisaid of Mr Hollande: “He wanted to impress the French with the fact that he was a normal man, that he was a man of dignity, simplicity, moral rigor.
“Suddenly the French are discovering that he is like others, but in a less glorious manner, even a ridiculous manner.”