Private Lives, Public Figures: The politics of France’s First Lady

 /  Feb. 18, 2014, 5 p.m.

Valerie Trierweiler

In the United States, the role of the first lady may not be outlined in the Constitution, but it is nevertheless intensely political and highly scrutinized. Since Eleanor Roosevelt’s exceptional outreach and popularity in the 1930s and 1940s, American first ladies have been expected to maintain a legacy of activism, cultural leadership, and a sophisticated image. In France, however, the role is far more vague—and the latest scandal surrounding First Lady Valerie Trierweiler has only increased French unease regarding their premiére dame.

When President François Hollande began his term in office on May 15, 2012, he moved into the presidential Elysée Palace with his longtime girlfriend, Ms. Valerie Trierweiler, by his side. From the beginning, Ms. Trierweiler was no ordinary first lady. She was an asset during President Hollande’s election campaign, acting as an unofficial, but necessary and much-relied-upon, aide. Trierweiler’s arrival at the Palace was not without controversy; her decision to continue her longtime career in journalism after Hollande’s election victory elicited scrutiny from some, who claimed that the situation represented a conflict of interest. Ms. Trierweiler was also the first French first lady to ascend to the largely unofficial post as an unmarried companion of the President.

However, Ms. Trierweiler’s unique career tenure as First Lady of France was abruptly cut short in late January 2014, following a curt call from President Hollande to French news agency Agence France Presse, announcing “as a private citizen” the termination of his relationship with Ms. Trierweiler. This announcement came two weeks after a tabloid report confirmed a secret affair between President Hollande and French actress Julie Gayet. Both Gayet and President Hollande have threatened legal action over what they called “an invasion of privacy.” But when the unelected companions of public figures obtain official governmental roles through association, is their privacy a right French citizens are willing to protect?

The answer is murky. France has a long-standing tradition of tolerating leaders who entertain scandalous love lives. Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, met his downfall when his steamy extramarital affair with model Carla Bruni went public. Hollande’s story is only the latest in a centuries-long epic of controversial romantic escapades by French leaders, beginning with the nation’s first President, Napoleon Bonaparte. France’s rich history of sexual scandals, however, is matched only by its long-standing tradition of strict privacy laws, stemming from the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights, and the resulting French civil code. This code reads: “Everyone has a right to respect of their private life.” But although the French have long been reputed to demonstrate a laissez-faire attitude toward the private lives of politicians, the French tabloid publishing images of the affair, Closer, sold out quickly, and Hollande’s polling numbers are at an all-time low.

Although French “people” (French slang for ‘public figures,’ referencing the popular American tabloid) have the right to, and often do, sue magazines for invasion of privacy, tabloids can offer two possible pleas in their defense: first, that the exposure was in the ‘public interest,’ or second, that the figures in question sought publicity. The first defense, some argue, is relevant in this case. Former First Lady Cécilia Attias, Nicolas Sarkozy’s first wife, argues that the President’s personal life, although a grey area, is ultimately important. “We must on one side respect each person’s liberty, we cannot force the president to marry,” she commented in an interview with the New York Times. “But at the same time, as president, they also become a model.” Another citizen raised concerns that this scandal may be indicative of the President’s true character. Herve Charriere told the Washington Post: “He hid that from us. What else is he hiding?”

But when it comes to this presidential scandal, citizens’ concerns go beyond the image projected by their leader. When the president’s unmarried companion is given a wing in the presidential palace, a five-person staff, and a travel budget, all of which is funded by taxpayer dollars, questions have to be raised when her status as first lady is revealed to be anything but concrete. “The French are having trouble defining what the status of a first lady should be,” said journalist Christine Clerc, who specializes in first couples. The people of France cannot afford to keep their long-standing tradition of ambivalence regarding political sex scandals if they are the ones supporting the lifestyle of the president’s partner—and if public officials wish to keep their affairs private, perhaps their partner, whoever it may be, should remain a private citizen.

Melissa Pavlik


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