We tend to believe that most aspects of political life are uniform across western societies – except, that is, when France hits the headlines. Just think of the leap of the imagination required to conceive of a British PM with one lover at No. 10 threatening to harm herself and another installed in a love nest round the corner and waiting to move in. The bedroom farce that has been carrying on at the head of the French state since the beginning of Francois Hollande’s presidency is all the more entertaining to British readers for being utterly incogitable.
But perhaps even more unimaginable is the public reaction to the account of the president’s baroque love life, written by his former lover, Valerie Trierweiler and published this week under the bitter-sweet title, ‘Merci Pour Ce Moment’ (Thanks for this moment). Not bothered most French people, by the details themselves, by president’s bodyguard delivering warm croissants to him and his actress lover, by the thwarted Valerie’s pathological jealousy, by her ‘suicidal gesturing’ or by Hollande’s (appalling) treatment of her. After all, seems to be the general view here, break-ups are invariably messy. As Socialist Speaker of the House, Claude Bartolone, said on TV when extracts of Trierweiler’s book were published Paris Match, “Do you know of any break-ups that go well? Everyone has their own suffering and their little story…”
So what are the French bothered about? Not presidential infidelity. They’ve come to expect a certain faithlessness in their heads of state. There were Giscard’s nocturnal sorties – made public by his post-coital, dawn run-in with a milk float, Chirac’s innumerable mistresses and Mitterrand’s secret love child, but none of these shenanigans inflicted any damage to the presidential aura. On the contrary, whenever a president of the Fifth Republic has been caught with his pants down, his approval ratings have improved. That’s why President Hollande believed, when his affair with the actress Julie Gayet was made public, that he could get away with his single, laconic and somewhat regal statement to the press: “I am making it known that I have put an end to my relationship with Valerie Trierweiller.”
Why, then, does the imperious Hollande continue to plummet in the polls? His voters aren’t bothered by what he might choose to do in private. What they’re bothered by, if you can believe this, is the deterioration of the dignity of the office he represents, occasioned by the playing out of his private persona in public.
French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls in reaction to Trierweiller’s book said this: “When you lower the public debate with outrageous attacks, or mix public and private lives, you debase the debate.” He then added, “I believe that the public debate, our public life needs respect. I would add another word: dignity. We need dignity.” Valls’ use of the word ‘dignity’ here is purposefully ambiguous. He means dignity as in ‘courtliness’ (when it comes to the president) and ‘seemliness’ (when it comes to anyone else).
This explains why the purveyor of all this smut, Valérie Trierweiler, is perhaps even more unpopular than the president. She’s being attacked on all sides by those – left and right, male and female – who are accusing her of lowering the tone. President of the far-right Front National, Marine Le Pen called her book ‘indecent’ and ‘a dishonour to France” and Philippe Bilger, public prosecutor and writer for Le Figaro, called it ‘vulgar’ and ‘exhibitionist.’ Female Le Monde columnists, Françoise Fressoz and Pascale Robert-Diard, were no less punishing: “Valerie Trierweiler is trying with this book to repair her image…as the hysteric, the husband thief, the vengeful woman. In defending herself, however, she merely records a presidency sunk by the private and personal.”
How to explain the vehemence and uniformity of these attacks? Valerie Trierweiler has broken a fundamental principal of French political life, an unwritten law inherited from the Ancien Regime and perpetuated by France’s revolutionary nomenklatura, that the private life – and by that I mean sex life – of a public figure must remain inviolable. Because she has broken this rule she is loathed. Not so much for her explosive personality – which had it stayed out of the papers, would have been whispered abroad in the corridors of power as fiery and passionate as opposed to hysterical and vindictive – but for having broken one of her nation’s most sacred taboos. And the violation of the omerta surrounding the sex lives of France’s politicians is all the more painful because it strikes at the very heart of a moral code that makes France so gloriously different from other western societies.
The French presidency must float far above the rabble, embodied in modern society by the media. But as political columnist with the left-leaning ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, Bruno Roger-Petit pointed out this week, with Trierweiler’s book “…the president has been stripped naked. Naked as no president has been before him. The king’s body has been profaned. The king’s body vulgarised. The king’s body cheapened. The king’s body divested of grandeur. But above all, the King’s body ridiculed.”
There’s “neither bomb, nor scandal” in Trierweiller’s book, said Le Monde’s review, so why haven’t all these outraged commentators rallied round their ‘desacralised’ president? And why have his approval ratings, already catastrophic, dropped even further since the publication of the book?
Because embedded in this otherwise innocuous kiss-and-tell is a tiny revelation about Hollande that makes ‘Merci Pour Ce Moment’, not a bomb, but a political fire ship: “He presented himself,” writes Trierweiler. “As the man who doesn’t like the rich. In reality, the president doesn’t like the poor. This man, this man of the left, says in private, ‘the toothless,’ proud of his joke.” More than any revelation about his philandering, this aspersion cast on his left-wing moral credentials could bring down the President. Because until this moment, Hollande’s ideological copybook has, as Figaro columnist Vincent Tremolet de Villers pointed out this week, been impeccable: “There’s been not a word out of place. Full marks all round. A friend to the meek and lowly, the enemy of finance…”
In France, money and the desire to make it are perceived as much dirtier than sex. In a culture still steeped in its catholic heritage – a heritage that when it came to the matter of profit and commerce, merged perfectly with the revolutionary agenda – egalitarianism is the prevailing religion. That’s why no one blanched when Hollande, back in 2006, said on TV, “Yes, I don’t like the rich. I admit it.” Then again, in a speech in January 2012 that certainly helped carry him into power, “I like people while others are fascinated by money.”
In private then, according to his ex, the president mocks the poor and – echoing the 16th century French proverb, A man without money is like a wolf without teeth – calls them ‘the toothless.’ No one here cared much about his trysts with Julie Gayet or his bad behaviour towards Valerie Trierweiller but people do care about this. Within minutes of the revelation about Hollande’s ‘toothless’ remark, the social networks were ablaze. On Twitter the hashtag #SansDents soared to the top. Two new Facebook groups emerged, the left wing ‘Nous les Sans Dents’ (We the toothless) and the right wing, La Revolution des Sans Dents, (The Revolution of the Toothless), the tagline of which is, ‘better no teeth than no balls’.
Realising that this thing could bring their president down, his supporters scrambled to discredit Trierweiler’s remark and reaffirm his egalitarian faith: “I don’t believe in the phrase ‘the toothless,’” said Socialist MP, Jérôme Guedj. “Not coming from a socialist militant who has equality stamped into his body.” (There it is again, the king’s body.)
Meanwhile the long march of history continues and in spite of all this indignation, the ‘toothless’ of France, who unlike their ruling elite has left the eighteenth century for the twenty first – all rush out to buy Trierweiller’s memoir, pushing it to the top of Amazon France and, in one day, ousting the nation’s highest-selling book of the last five years: E.L. James’ international blockbuster, “Fifty Shades of Grey.’
A version of this post appeared in The Observer