The backstory: Nicolas Sarkozy, the diminutive, energetic son of a Hungarian immigrant to France, works hard, climbs the greasy pole of politics, and is elected president in 2007. He seems to have it all: a bagful of the right conservative ideas about how to bring the reluctant French kicking and screaming into the 21st century by working more to make more, freeing up the country’s ossified labor market, lowering taxes, and becoming America’s friend again. But Sarkozy has tragic personality flaws. He upsets people with his nervous, unpredictable ways. His harum-scarum love life — his wife leaves him only weeks after the election and he very publicly woos and marries a man-eating supermodel who loudly proclaims her distaste for monogamy — unsettles his conservative base. He is defeated in last May’s presidential election by a bland, affable candidate who campaigns as Monsieur Normal, the anti-Sarkozy. He might be dull, mousy, even mediocre, the French seem to have thought, but at least we’ll have a dignified Élysée Palace again with François Hollande as president.
But close observers on election night might have realized something was wrong. There on a platform symbolically erected in the center of Place de la Bastille — the birthplace of the French Revolution being considered appropriate for the first Socialist president in 17 years — stood a beaming, waving Hollande basking in the huzzahs of the overjoyed Left. But wait a minute. Instead of the traditional victory kiss from his wife, the president-elect was bracketed between two beaming women, both obviously ready for a buss. He turned to his right and pecked one on both cheeks. Then turned to his left just as that lady visibly formed the silent words, “Kiss me on the mouth.” Which he dutifully did. As Hillary Rodham Clinton might have said, “Two for the price of one!” Or as Bob Tyrrell has put it in a different context, “Those French gents do know how to live.”
Thus was born this summer’s French soap opera about a ménage à trois. It’s a compelling mix of high politics at the apex of the French state and the low comedy of a guy sandwiched between two jealous tigresses. Exactly the sort of bitter love triangle that has long been the staple of Paris boulevard farce.
To Hollande’s right that night was Ségolène Royal, his 59-year-old former mistress of 30 years, mother of his four children, and defeated 2007 Socialist Party presidential candidate. To his left was Valérie Trierweiler, a tough, twice-divorced, 47-year-old political journalist who caught Hollande’s eye during what must have been some pretty provocative interviews. Unassuming and mild-mannered he might appear, but both these women desperately crave his body. So much for his campaign promise to end the Sarkozy era of flaunting a tasteless private life.
You couldn’t invent this — the situation is almost beyond parody. That doesn’t stop the French media from having a field day with what one veteran pol calls “vaudeville come to the Élysée Palace.” A prominent news weekly runs a cover with the two women glaring at each other: “The Poison of Jealousy.” A feminist magazine puts Trierweiler on the cover with the supportive title, “Alone against all the rest.” A popular prime-time satirical show runs regular variations on the theme of an embarrassed, henpecked Hollande cowering between two rivals spitting insults at him and each other.
The rivals’ spat became spectacularly public just days before run-off voting in June’s legislative elections. Royal, the official Socialist Party candidate in the southwestern city of La Rochelle, had Hollande’s public backing, his photo prominent on her campaign posters. Winning that seat was key to her goal of becoming president of the National Assembly — a reward Hollande had promised for her hard campaigning for him in the presidential. She looked set to beat her rival, a dissident Socialist named Olivier Falorni.
Ay, there’s the rub. If she did win and then became Assembly president, Royal would be number four in the French government. She would necessarily work with Hollande on an almost daily basis. “Yes, the man I love had a woman before me” Trierweiler has written in a recent book. “I have to live with it.” But the idea of the two of them working closely was too much to live with. She reportedly threw a tantrum with Hollande over his support for Royal. “You did it without telling me,” she told him, according to the version going around. “You’ll see what I can do.”
What she could do was a poisonous 137-character tweet voicing support for Royal’s opponent. It went viral, tipped the balance in Falorni’s favor, and left a defeated and deflated Royal without a political future. Touché! So astonished were Hollande’s advisers at this violation of party discipline — they called it a scud missile — that they first thought her Tweet account had been hacked. Especially since French presidents’ wives (or mistresses, concubines, companions, lovers, partners, take your pick) traditionally avoid politics. But not for nothing is she known by her critics as La Rottweiler. She confirmed the tweet and dug in her high heels: “I have a strong character,” she said in a defiant interview. “I won’t be a figurehead and they can’t rein me in.”
Ironically, Trierweiler met Hollande in 1992 in a maternity ward when as a reporter for the society magazine Paris Match she covered the birth of Royal’s fourth child. Over the years she became a friend of the family. By 2005 she had ditched her second husband, Denis Trierweiler, a Match editor with whom she had three children, and become more than a friend to Hollande. He then caddishly dumped Royal the day after she lost the 2007 presidential election, declaring how lucky he was finally to have met the love of his life. Their relationship only became public knowledge during this year’s campaign, when she went high profile and took charge of his image, complete with weight loss, sharper suits, and fashionable glasses. Hollande’s campaign staff left the room when words mon amour flashed on his cell phone: Trierweiler was calling. Before Tweetgate made her controversial, the press drooled over her “look reminiscent of the late Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn,” and called her “François Hollande’s most charming asset.”
Of charm she has little. She seldom smiles, and when she does it looks forced and unattractive. Her usual look is one of steely determination. She insists that she will continue to work as a journalist for Match despite outcries over conflict of interest. Her sway over Hollande ‘s personal life has succeeded in banning Royal from attending the funeral of Hollande’s mother, excluding her from the presidential swearing-in ceremony, even editing her out of a documentary film on the history of the Socialist Party. At the Élysée Palace she commands her own four-person staff, to the consternation of a swelling chorus of critics who ask what right she, as unwed First Concubine, has to any taxpayer funding.
With criticism of Hollande’s personal life costing him points, his staff is pressing him to do something about the Élysée’s loose cannon. “François will really have to do something to rein in Valerie,” an aide reportedly has said. In an attempt to dampen things down, Hollande declared on Bastille Day that Trierweiler would not have official “first lady” status, and that “private matters should be handled in private.” Good luck with that, as the situation is becoming increasingly venomous. His four children now refuse to see or speak to his current partner. His eldest son, Thomas, 27, has publicly attacked her for the tweet, saying it destroyed the normal image Hollande had worked to create. “I knew there would be trouble with her,” he said, “but I didn’t think it would be this big.”
The turbo-charged Paris rumor mill now has the Trierweiler episode possibly entering a new phase. Conspicuous by her absence during Hollande’s June trip to the G20 summit in Mexico, as well as his official visit to London earlier this month, some are quick to conclude that her days as First Whatever are numbered. “Relations between them are so frosty that there is talk of their splitting up,” reports one breathless gossip sheet. “These days they hardly see each other.” According to this scenario, the president could announce a split during the slow dog days of August, before the vacationing government — this being France, cabinet ministers will be off sunning themselves for three weeks — returns to work in the autumn. That wouldn’t necessarily be the end of his messy romantic predicament. Caught in the middle of this catfight, he could face trouble from another direction.
Hell hath no fury like a French mistress scorned, and Royal, whose long political career proves she is a feisty, resourceful fighter, is down but far from out. She has so far been restrained in her reaction, but is obviously angry. She is convinced that one reason she lost the presidential in 2007 was that Trierweiler kept Hollande from campaigning more actively for her. After getting mad, she will likely concentrate on getting even. How about a tell-all memoir of 30 years of personal and political life with France’s new president, just for starters?
This very French affaire of the president’s warring mistresses has its serious side, of course. Hollande was elected to deal with weighty issues like France’s disastrous public debt, burgeoning social problems, and soaring unemployment. He promised “change now,” but to many French who were tired of seeing Sarkozy’s unbuttoned private life on prime time, it looks like the same old same old. Worse, within weeks of his inauguration he became embroiled in a rancorous imbroglio that makes him a laughingstock, distracts from the business at hand, and tarnishes the debut of his presidency. Just like his unfortunate predecessor. It also calls into question his judgment and priorities. Is this president’s priority solving the crisis in the eurozone, or the one in the erogenous zone?