Dark Horse.

Why has Hollande’s affair with Julie Gayet led to a poll boost among French women?

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An opinion poll this week’s Nouvel Observateur shows a three-point jump in approval for Francois Hollande among women aged 25-34 and 50-64. Why has the French president’s popularity suddenly increased among certain French women? The obvious answer, depressing though it may be, is that since his affair with Julie Gayet hit the headlines Hollande’s image as a potent male has caught their attention. There’s a tendency here in France, and this is a long tradition, to link sexual potency with power. Generally speaking, the more popular male political leaders are those known to have the busiest sex lives. Since the founding of the Fifth Republic, De Gaulle was the first notable exception (exceptional circumstances oblige) and Francois Hollande the second. Hollande, as anyone will tell you, got into power simply because he wasn’t Nicolas Sarkozy. For France, in 2012, was suffering from a serious case of Sarko fatigue. The diminutive but ubiquitous Sarkozy, with his rages, his appetites, his sweeping reforms and his somewhat exhausting, priapic demeanour, had worn people down and the podgy, upstanding Hollande seemed like a welcome antidote. Voting for him, however, was a break with tradition. For the French tend to vote for the sexier candidate.

During those terrifying Presidential elections of 2002, for instance, in which extreme right leader Le Pen managed to get into the second round against Jacques Chirac, I would hear undecided Parisian voters saying – and this was men and women – that they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin because he just wasn’t sexy enough. (They meant both literally and figuratively).  Jospin was ahead in the polls until voters unaccountably turned their backs on him, the result of which was that Le Pen slipped through to the second round. Barmy but true. Since news of his affair with Gayet became public, Hollande, in the eyes of the women in this poll, is suddenly a dark horse, or rather a ‘chaud lapin,’ i.e a hot rabbit. Which means someone who likes sex and has a lot of it.

Behind this opinion poll lies another reality, which is that Hollande has split the female vote. The percentage of women who disapprove of him has also gone up three points. Why they disapprove, however, will probably surprise most British and American women. The French women who have turned their backs on him do so, not because they judge him for his infidelities, but out of compassion for the thwarted Valerie Trierweiller. (Hollande’s approval ratings, you will notice, have not improved among women in the same age bracket as Trierweiller). Most of the online comments posted by women in response to articles on this subject in the French press, attest to their new sympathy for the hitherto fiery and unpredictable Trierweiller, who as far as they’re concerned, fled to hospital to seek refuge from the public shame resulting from her ‘trampled dignity’ (dignité piétinée). The suggestion lying behind these comments is that she who once held the rank of triumphant courtesan has been brutally demoted to that of abandoned mistress and these women’s hearts are bleeding for her loss of status. If Hollande had been able to keep his affair secret (ie out of the press) – just as Giscard, Mitterrand, and Chirac did for years – no one would have judged him for it and Trierweiller would not now be worthy of pity. But those days are over because France is no longer a safe haven from intrusive media and when Hollande in a post coital flash of inspiration gets his driver to pick up croissants for himself and Julie Gayet, the whole world knows about it.

French women’s views of Hollande (positive and negative) don’t appear to be driven by the same set of post-feminist values that ours might be. Nowhere will you see Hollande castigated as a randy, duplicitous bastard. He’s ‘ridiculous’ or ‘indiscreet’ or ‘lacking in presidential stature’. It’s even probable that in the eyes of the women who approved of him in that poll, Hollande has clawed back some presidential stature thanks to this affair.

I do think that what this story reveals more than anything is the agony the French are experiencing in the face of this (media) intrusion into a moral code that has served them perfectly well for centuries. It’s a code of honour that champions appearances over reality and values discretion over truth. Most of the Parisians I talk to about this story simply don’t want to know. Or rather they don’t mind knowing (a lot of them have known for over a year) but they don’t want to read about it in the paper. They find it distasteful. Why? Because they value their own privacy and dread the day when the Anglo-American obsession with transparency ruins their own love lives.

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