And to think they called him limp, soft, flaccid. The nickname behind his back was Flanby, a popular gelatinous French canned dessert. Wrong, all wrong. It turns out that President François Hollande demonstrates a firm, nay, veritably priapic virility that, at age 59, would do honor to many a fantasizing man years his junior. French presidents have long let it be known that they like an extracurricular dalliance now and then — even when it wasn’t true. It goes with the territory and improves the image in a country where the menfolk like to consider themselves sacrés baiseurs (I prefer not to translate in a family magazine). But sneaking out of the Élysée Palace on a scooter for regular midnight trysts with an actress in a nearby apartment owned by the ex-mistress of an alleged Mafioso? That sets a new record for insouciant presidential playing around even in France.
In case you tuned in late, the story to date: Hollande, Socialist Party hack by trade, lived for 30 years (and had four illegitimate children) without benefit of matrimony with Ségolène Royal, a politician in her own right who failed in a presidential bid in 2007. The day after she lost, he inelegantly dumped her in favor of Valérie Trierweiler, a 47-year-old political journalist with whom he was already two-timing Royal. On the evening he won the presidency by accident in May 2012 — Dominique Strauss-Kahn was the undisputed socialist front-runner until he accosted a cleaning lady in a New York hotel — Hollande stood on the victory podium in Place de la Bastille flanked by both paramours. Both demanded, and received, a public kiss.
Hollande then moved Trierweiler into the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence, as official First Concubine, declaring she was the love of his life but eschewing marriage. Except for a few old curmudgeons who wondered aloud what right he had to house his girlfriend at public expense — she enjoys an office, staff of five, and chauffeured car at an estimated cost to French taxpayers of some $27,000 a month, plus all those free presidential trips to foreign countries — the broad-minded French were cool with that.
But in this ménage à trois the course of true love ne'er did run smooth. French media mockingly called Hollande’s household “vaudeville come to the Élysée Palace.” The two rivals hated each other. With an embarrassed, henpecked Hollande cowering while they spat insults at him and each other, he looked more like a Chicken Little than the cock of the walk. The testy Trierweiler became known by her critics, and they were many, as La Rottweiler. “I have a strong character,” she said in a defiant interview. “I won’t be a figurehead and they can’t rein me in.”
Maybe she had just a bit too much character for Flanby. In any case, he adopted a months-long habit of slipping out of the Élysée in the middle of the night for consolation with a lissome, 41-year-old actress named Julie Gayet. This was graphically illustrated last week in the seven-page bombshell entitled “The President’s Secret Love” in a celebrity magazine. For the tout Paris, it was nothing new: insiders have whispered of such a romantic liaison for months; TV talk show guests tittered in code words about it; a weekly newsmagazine used the coy expression escapades discrètes to describe his nightly rutting.
But the magazine’s photos, shot by photographers who had staked him out with long lenses in an apartment across the street from the president’s love nest in the elegant rue du Cirque, a stone’s throw from the official residence and the Champs Élysées, left little to the imagination. They showed Hollande, face largely hidden by a motorcycle helmet but recognizable by his clothing and the presence of his usual bodyguard, arriving on the back of a scooter driven by said bodyguard. One even shows the faithful bodyguard dutifully returning to the apartment with a bag of fresh breakfast croissants for the couple. They are shown exiting the building, separately, in the morning. According to reporting in Le Monde, he has made the trip at least ten times in recent months.
Hollande didn’t challenge the reporting. Instead, he reportedly informed Trierweiler himself that the article was being published, then issued a brief communiqué pleading for respect for his private life, “like any citizen,” and threatening legal proceedings against the magazine. (He later changed his mind and declared he would not sue it, tacitly confirming the article’s accuracy.) At his press conference on Tuesday, where 580 French and foreign newsmen expected some clarification of his relations with both Trierweiler and Gayet, Hollande hunkered down and flatly refused to answer any questions on the subject.
Was she still first lady? Would she accompany him on the state visit to Washington on February 11? “Everyone in his private life can go through ordeals,” Hollande said in his obviously prepared non-answer to the session’s first question. “That is what is happening to us. These are painful moments. But I have a principle that private matters are dealt with in private. This is neither the place nor the time to do so. I will answer no further questions on this subject.” The cowed French press, respectful as usual, acquiesced.
As to whether she would be at his side for the White House state dinner, he promised to let everyone — presumably including Trierweiler herself — know before he headed to Washington. He was thus giving himself up to a month to decide who he wants to sleep with next. Would it be Valéry? Julie? A cancan dancer at the Folies Bergère who catches his libidinous eye? Why not a man, a First Gentleman, since Hollande fought so hard for France’s new law permitting homosexual marriage? After all, if personal morality, exemplary conduct, and honor are no consideration in judging a country’s leader, anything goes.
The French public is letting him get away with such stonewalling, accustomed as it is to being treated with monarchical contempt. Polls show three-quarters of respondents shrug at what he does on his off-time; they consider the whole scabrous affair a private matter that is nobody else’s business, and 87 percent said it would not change their opinion of him. (Of course, with his popularity in the low 20s, the lowest of any modern French president, it could hardly fall further.)
Asked how Trierweiler was doing, Hollande replied tersely: “She is resting. I have nothing else to say.” His offhand treatment of her can hardly have soothed the titular first lady. She checked into Paris’s Val de Grace military hospital, which treats France’s high officials, last Friday, apparently suffering from a major depression — rumor has it that she may have attempted suicide with an overdose of medication — shortly after the magazine hit the newsstands. She felt like she had been “hit by a high-speed train,” her friends let it be known. “She didn’t believe it at first,” they told the French press. “She thought they could just get their lawyers to stop publication. When told it couldn’t be banned, she was very upset, humiliated and turned into a national laughingstock.”
Hollande might think he need answer no more questions about this, but his refusal to clear the air means the story is sure to keep bobbing up for weeks. Is Gayet really four months pregnant, as the French blogosphere claims? Will Trierweiler take the initiative of splitting? From the hospital, where she is expected to stay another week, she has leaked word that she is ready to forgive and forget if he makes amends. She very much wants that trip to Washington. She also wants to hold on to first lady perks. The betting here is that she will do anything and everything necessary to do so, regardless of the inevitable public humiliation.
This sorry soap opera will tarnish the rest of Hollande’s term. But some of it will be fun and games. Video games in particular. The affair has already spawned a mocking parody game in which you drive him on his scooter from the Elysée Palace to Gayet’s apartment, dodging paparazzi, journalists, Royal and Trierweiler.
Adding piquancy to the whole affair is that the apartment where Hollande met (meets?) Gayet is that of a Corsican woman named Emmanuelle Hauck, with long and intimate relations to Corsican organized crime. Hauck, who lends the pad to Gayet for the assignations, used to live with actor Michel Ferracci — he starred in a French TV series appropriately called “Mafiosa” — and has two children by him. They separated some time back, before Ferraccci was given an 18-month suspended sentence for money laundering linked to a Corsican gang.
More recently, Hauck lived with another unsavory sort, François Masini, until he was killed in a gangland drive-by shooting in Corsica last May. Any connection between these characters and Hollande appears fortuitous. But it does raise further questions about his judgment and the thoroughness of his security detail. Did no one — his security people, the police, Emmanuel Valls, the minister of the interior and top cop — warn him about the apartment’s sleazy connections?
Missing this week in all the febrile chatter are words like personal morality and character. No commentator dares mention them. Or maybe they no longer exist in today’s French mind. This is now a country where the good judgment, steady reliability, and trustworthiness of its leader, a man with his finger on the nuclear button, don’t matter. No value judgments, please, we’re French!
It will be interesting to see with what pomp and circumstance France’s tomcatting president is received next month at the White House by Barack and Michelle Obama. Will they fawn over whatever woman is on his arm? Hide their daughters? Make him a state gift of a box of colorful condoms? “The president looks forward to seeing President Hollande for the state visit in February,” says Jay Carney. “On issues of the delegation that the French come with, I would refer you to the French government.” And good luck getting an answer there.
One thing is certain: if Charles de Gaulle, a man of rectitude and integrity whatever his faults — his stiff-necked contrariness with allies, his tactical duplicity with the French themselves — were alive today, he would weep for what the French presidency has become.