Dani Garavelli: Sex, lies and French kisses

The fact that François Hollande’s tangled lovelife has been exposed has shocked France. Now public figures may never be able to keep their sexual shenanigans secret again, writes Dani Garavelli

The fact that François Hollande’s tangled lovelife has been exposed has shocked France. Now public figures may never be able to keep their sexual shenanigans secret again, writes Dani Garavelli

WHEN Valerie Trierweiler waltzed with François Hollande to Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose in a square in the little town of Tulle shortly after he was elected president, she had the air of a woman about to fulfil her destiny. Having played a key role in increasing her partner’s electoral appeal – coming up with the tag “the normal man” to counter incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy’s “bling bling” image, yet lending a dash of panache when his normality threatened to teeter into dullness – she appeared tailor-made for the unofficial role of First Lady. No-one seemed to hold it against her that she had “stolen” Hollande from fellow Socialist politician and mother of his four children, Ségolène Royal. This was France after all, a country so at ease with infidelity it has its own phrase – cinq à sept – for the time set aside for a man to meet his mistress. Back then, the chat was all about how she would blaze a trail for modern women by carrying on with her job as a journalist at Paris Match, while supporting her partner as head of state.

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It didn’t take long for it to become clear that Trierweiler had been viewing the world through rose-coloured spectacles. With no prospect of a wedding to formalise her position (Hollande thinks marriage is bourgeois) and a temperament which seemed to lurch between domineering and needy, she was soon being dubbed “the Rottweiler” and compared to Marquise of Pompadour, the scheming mistress of Louis XV. Claims that at the start of the relationship she was also sleeping with Sarkozy adviser Patrick Devedjian compounded the perception of her as sexually manipulative and her antipathy towards Royal, which erupted when she tweeted her support for Royal’s political rival Olivier Falorni, led to suggestions she was, like Daphne du Maurier’s fictional heroine Rebecca, a woman driven to the edge of insanity by her obsession with her partner’s previous relationship.

If so, she was worried about the wrong woman. The publication of photos which purported to show Hollande, incognito, on his way to a tryst with current “mistress”, actress Julie Gayet, led to Trierweiler being admitted to hospital with “un coup de blues” – a bout of depression. Her misery is unlikely to have been alleviated by fresh claims last week that the supposed affair has been going on for two years, or by Hollande’s refusal to publicly clarify her status in the wake of the revelations.

Gayet, 41, a left-wing activist who has appeared in more than 50 films since her debut in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s masterpiece Three Colours: Blue in 1993 - was born into a middle-class family in the Parisian suburb of Hauts-de-Seine. Her mother was an antiques dealer and her father was a gastric surgeon who took her to visit his patients, even when they were dying of cancer, an experience she said encouraged her to live life to the full.

At the age of 17, she moved to London to study at the Actors Studio before returning to Paris to embark on a film and television career, which has seen her win several awards, including the Brussels International Film Festival award for best actress for her role in the French film ­Select Hotel in 1997. In 2003, she married author and screenwriter Santiago Amigorena, with whom she has two teenage children, but they separated after a few years.

To further complicate the tangle of sexual relationships, Gayet is said to have been introduced to Hollande by Royal as long ago as 2011 and to have met with him again the following year after his son Thomas’s new girlfriend, Joyce Jonathan, a pop star who was a friend of Gayet’s, asked him to organise a lunch and invite her along to discuss the arts. Whatever, during the election campaign the same year, she appeared in a video, backing him. “He really listens and that is quite rare, very, very rare even,” she gushes. “I am very impressed with him, you can talk about everything in detail.”

Closer magazine also published photographs showing Trierweiler and Gayet at a Socialist Party meeting where Hollande was confirmed as presidential candidate. At this time, or shortly afterwards, the magazine implies, the pair were already intimate. It claims they were first seen together at a large apartment near the Elysée Palace in December 2012, but were forced to move their meetings elsewhere when the concierge of the building tried to photograph them together.

They split for a while last spring, when Trierweiler became suspicious, but resumed their affair in June when a small apartment in the Rue du Cirque 200 metres from the Elysée Palace, became available. “From that moment onwards, the head of state and the actress were constantly together, visiting the apartment around 20 times,” Closer said.

According to the magazine, the president and the actress also spent a weekend together at Hollande’s holiday home at Mougins in the south of France on 28-29 September and spent time together in Tulle, which is in his constituency, while Trierweiler was on holiday in Greece waiting for the president to join her. Gayet, who told friends she was seeing an “older” man is believed to have introduced him to members of her family. It was outside the building in the Rue de Cirque that Hollande was photographed, disguised in a large black motorcycle helmet, on the morning of 31 December.

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Since the revelations have emerged, Gayet has remained calm, insisting she has done nothing wrong, while moving quickly to deny rumours she is four months pregnant.

The scoop in Closer is having repercussions beyond the personal. French people are used to sexual incontinence at the heart of government, but not to having it splashed all over the world’s news­papers. And certainly not to the unedifying sight of their president in a crash helmet on the back of a scooter on his way to a “love nest”. Though polls suggest only 47 per cent of the country’s citizens believe an extra-marital affair to be unacceptable (compared with 64 per cent in Italy and 76 per cent in Britain) so great was the demand for the photos captured during an all-night stake-out, Closer had to print an extra 150,000 copies. Meanwhile, the intricate web of relationships amongst France’s elite and the light it throws on the country’s laissez-faire attitude towards adultery has ignited gossip and sniggering across the globe, particularly when it was suggested Hollande was rumbled by his shoes (apparently he only has one pair).

So far polls suggest the scandal is actually improving Hollande’s standing with female voters. This may be in part because they are experiencing a degree of schadenfreude in relation to Trierweiler or because the gossip is providing a welcome distraction from other problems – rising unemployment and a widening trade deficit – which have seen Hollande’s popularity ratings sink to the lowest recorded by any French president.

The saga has sparked a debate over the role of First Lady, which, though it doesn’t officially exist, means Trierweiler has a staff of five and several limousines at her disposal, and underlined a gradual shift away from protecting the privacy of public figures. After decades when exposing politicians’ sexual skulduggery was a non-non, has open season now been declared on their intimate relationships?

Compared to the UK and the US, the French are blasé about their leaders’ sexual peccadillos and hold their nonchalance up as proof of their cultural superiority. From Napoleon, who had a string of affairs during his marriage to Josephine, to Jacques “trois minutes, douche compris” (three minutes, shower included) Chirac, their activities between the sheets have been seen as their own business. Just a few years before Bill Clinton was skewered over his Oval Office encounters with Monica Lewinsky, French president François Mitterand was splitting himself between two parallel families with no public scrutiny at all. When, in 1995, Paris Match wanted to publish photos of his illegitimate daughter, then 20, it sought his permission first. But recently fines handed out to magazines who breach privacy laws have become increasingly lenient, as the social media revolution has fostered an air of transparency.

The irony for Hollande is that if it hadn’t been for those changing attitudes, he probably wouldn’t have become president. Having never held a ministerial role in government, he was an outside bet to become the Socialist Party candidate for the presidency in 2011 until the favourite Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) then head of the IMF, was charged with the rape of a housekeeper at the Sofitel Hotel in New York. Although DSK was already known as “un chaud lapin” – a hot rabbit – in relation to a string of relationships with prominent women, his arrest sparked a series of sexual harassment allegations.

Compared to DSK and Sarkozy, Hollande was indeed “the normal man”. Where Sarkozy was prone to dramatic outbursts, Hollande exuded an air of calm, where Sarkozy was flashy Hollande was understated. But those who mistook Hollande’s ordinariness for strength and solidity were to be sorely disappointed. Many political observers say his presidency was undermined from the outset by weakness and indecision on issues such as Syria and the scandal over Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac who had a secret bank account to avoid paying taxes.

This indecision also had an impact on his domestic life, with his reluctance to make a final choice between Royal and Trierweiler at least in part to blame for the latter’s insecurity.

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Now the president is vacillating again. It took him several days to visit Trierweiler in hospital, although he insists he was forbidden to attend by doctors, and he has not made any public statement as to which woman – Trierweiler or Gayet – is his current partner, an issue which needs to be resolved before Hollande’s visit to Washington next month. With Trierweiler saying she’s ready to forgive, but a poll suggesting 89 per cent of people want him to give her the heave-ho, it can’t be easy. But the danger is that any increase in popularity which may have come from Hollande appearing slightly less bland will be wiped out by the entrenched impression of him as a chronic ditherer.

As to what the latest round of bed-swapping tells us about French attitudes towards privacy, verdicts are mixed. Unsurprisingly, politicians of all hues have condemned Closer, with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault saying the president is “perfectly right” to demand privacy and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, adding “as long as it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny, I believe everyone has the right to have their private life respected”. Some ordinary citizens continue to affect a Gallic superiority, as if any curiosity about the sexual shenanigans of the rich and powerful is beneath them.

But there is a growing recognition in some quarters that the merry-go-round of relationships in France’s establishment is not altogether healthy for democracy or for the mental health of those involved. As much of the world chortles, people are being damaged emotionally and professionally; Trierweiler and Gayet have both been left dangling, while Gayet has been dropped from a prestigious jury charged with selecting scholarships for the Villa Medici, a French academy in Rome.

Others acknowledge social media is making existing laws difficult to enforce. “In the past, public personas were stage-managed through established media dominated by professional journalists,” Professor Matthew Fraser, a media specialist at the American University of Paris, has said. “The public knew very little about the private identities of politicians. Only journalists knew. But the old rules are out. With social media, information is accessible and goes viral in a matter of minutes. You can’t manage or control it.” For all Hollande’s outrage, it seems French politicians may soon have to come to accept that the concept of privacy for public figures – however time-honoured – is now redundant.