Last Lady

In the aftermath of the Hollande-Gayet-Trierweiller sex scandal, or love vortex – depending on which side of the Channel you’re viewing things from – Le Nouvel Observateur asked me to comment on the following: Is the notion of ‘Premiere Dame’ (First Lady) an intrinsically sexist concept? Once I’d overcome my surprise that this should be a question (I was hard pushed to answer anything other than, ‘Er. Yeah?’) I began to wonder why it is that France is ahead of Britain and America in so many ways when it comes to gender equality (for the number of women in the cabinet, in parliament and in the boardroom) and yet far behind us in so many other ways – decades, possibly even half a century behind.

A vestige of the Ancien Regime like so many other features of the political and cultural life of this country, I was amused by the fact that the role of Premiere Dame is only now being called into question. In the grubby wake of the revelations about the President’s love life, his immediate entourage started wondering out loud on French radio whether the role of Premiere Dame shouldn’t be abolished altogether. After all, pointed out François Rebsamen, it was pretty undemocratic when you thought about it. I got the distinct impression, listening to this new debate that people felt things might have gone more smoothly for the President had Valerie Trierweiller not had her own desk at the Elysees. They’re wrong of course. Whether a Premiere Dame, or a premiere femme, a premiere concubine, or a premier reporter, Valerie Trierweiller could never have slipped discretely from public life, even if she’d wanted to. France is no longer an island, a national jardin secret safe from the prying eyes of the global media and both Francois Hollande and the French presidency itself seem to be having some difficulty in waking up to this horrific truth.

This reluctance to face reality is reflected in the sparse and laconic communiqués that have been offered to foreign journalists by the Elysees ever since the story broke. “It’s hilarious,” one British correspondent told me. “The message from the beginning has been, This doesn’t concern you. What are they thinking?!” The assumptions embedded in the palace’s statements, that the French presidency is somehow inviolable and that journalists should toe the line are indeed quite funny, particularly when set against the cold realities of the outside world, a world in which newspapers must do battle with the Internet without the benefit of state subsidies (in 2010 France spent about 1.8 billion euros in direct aid to the press) and where most commissioning editors, living in a state of constant fear for their jobs, start frothing at the mouth when a story like this breaks. Far from applauding the realities of the outside world, next time something like this hits the headlines, I would invite the Elysees Palace at least to face up to them.

In fact, the Premiere Dame has been a defunct notion ever since Cecilia Sarkozy chucked her husband while he was in office and marched off the stage. And it was only because Carla Bruni was such a consummate actress (remember her sudden change of wardrobe, her demure, Jackie Kennedy-like demeanour?) that the French were beguiled into thinking the role might still be plausible. Trierweiller, however, knew better. “I won’t be a potiche,” (trophy wife) she warned. This, despite her best efforts, was exactly what she became.

I suspect that the inner tension Valerie Trierweiller clearly felt in playing this archaic role, as well as the confusion that seems to be characterising French public’s view of her so-called ‘repudiation’ are indicative of another and far more entrenched French paradox: that of a patriarchy in denial. One of the last European countries to give women the vote, France has been playing catch up all through the Fifth Republic. Acutely aware of how she looks to her European partners, the land of liberty, equality and fraternity has managed, where the number of women MPs in parliament is concerned, to race past Britain and America in a very short space of time. Thanks largely to her bold and controversial parity legislation of 2000, 27% of France’s MPs are now women, while Britain is stagnating around 22% and America around 18%. With 50% women in his cabinet, Hollande is doing far better than Cameron, who has only 5 out of 23 female cabinet members. So back off, my French friends often tell me. Stop lecturing us about sexism when we have a proper political consensus surrounding gender equality.

The problem, though, is the glass ceiling, a reality that despite it not existing in the French language is there nonetheless. This invisible barrier is most keenly felt by members of what the French call ‘the parity generation,’ (young people who have benefited directly from parity laws of 2000). Indeed Nataf Vallaud Belkacem, Hollande’s Women’s Rights Minister and his government spokesperson, has clearly elaborated France’s latest battery of gender legislation (which focuses on the ‘private’ spheres of abortion and paternity leave in particular) to try to break through this glass ceiling for the benefit, if not of herself, then of future generations. Frequently vilified for her ambition, the 37 year-old Belkacem has had to develop nerves of steel to rise above the steady tide of sexism that laps around her ankles. Laurent Telo’s article in last week’s Le Monde, published under the title “Dents Longues et Langue de Bois”, a reference to the Minister’s perceived ‘long teeth’ (rapacious ambition) and ‘wooden tongue’ (tendency to stonewall) is a good example of this. In his piece Telo compares Belkacem to a child ballerina in a tutu balancing between the President’s views and those of the Prime Minister and calls her, in a particularly clumsy attempt, perhaps, to compliment her on her beauty, “the Natalie Portman of Moroccans” (Belkacem is of Moroccan origin).

For me, the clearest manifestation of the enduring sexism that still clings to France despite the best intentions of her political leaders was the spectacle of Segolene Royal’s campaign for the presidency. I realised watching that campaign that France was simply not as ready for a female president as she thought she was. Remember the sabotage, first from Royal’s male colleagues within the Socialist party? Remember Melanchon’s ‘The Presidency of the Republic is not a beauty contest,’ and Fabius’ ‘Who will look after the children?’ But perhaps more alarmingly there was a survey conducted by the Nouvel Observateur in which 100 famous women were questioned on their feelings about the socialist candidate. The vast majority disliked Royal and their principle objection seemed to have something to do with her being a mother of four. Former porn star, Brigitte Lahaie said, “For her [Royal], the image of the mother overrides the image of the woman.’ And Alina Reyes, a feminist author of erotic fiction, said, “Ségolène Royal is an archaic female figure who calls upon that part of France which falls back onto family values. With her it’s regressus in utero.”

It was particularly, I felt, that the porn star and the feminist both invoked the predominantly male fantasy of the castrating mother. Even Catherine Millet, author of ‘The Sexual Life of Catherine M.’ seemed to be relaying the deepest fears of the male psyche ‘For me, she’s a Robespierrette. This country doesn’t need a “Mummy” to give it moral lectures.’

But perhaps this is the crucial point: the pillars of the French patriarchy appear to be resting solidly upon the myths, inherited from Catholicism and broadly accepted by both men and women in this country, which perpetuate those old but entrenched ideas surrounding a woman’s mystique and the sex appeal that goes with it. There is unquestionably a consensus, particularly among French women of my generation and above, that it’s important to be first and foremost attractive to men. Motherhood with its attendant mess of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding (to which, significantly, Simone de Beauvoir had an almost pathological repugnance) must never be allowed to interfere with a French woman’s sexiness. Indeed this, I’m sure, explains why so many of my French girlfriends find it so difficult to describe themselves as feminist. It’s simply not sexy.

This patriarchal climate will, I suspect, continue to hamper equality in France, despite all the well-intentioned gender legislation. Until, that is, the next generation of French women – women like my own daughter – decides it has had enough of the collusion. It also explains why poor, defiant, ill-equipped Valerie Trierweiller could never have won in the eyes of the French public. And why, even when the role of Premiere Dame no longer really exists, she’s still expected to behave with dignity.

The End of the Affair?

With the publication of a new biography of Francois Hollande’s girlfriend, Valerie Treirweiller, the French public will, whether they like it or not, discover yet another layer in the complex erotic saga that is their president’s love life. “La Frondeuse” (The Rebel) reveals that in the early days of his affair with Trierweiller, Francois Hollande shared his mistress with Patrick Devedjian, a political rival close to Sarkozy. Both Trierweiller and Devedjian are suing authors, Christophe Jakubyszyn and Alix Bouilhaguet for “defamation and infringement of privacy,” but this will not stop the news from spreading across the globe, nor will it help to explain French sexual mores to the rest of the world.

The euphemistic language in which the story of this ménage a trois is recounted reveals all by itself the gap between France and Britain when it comes to infidelity: “At the time,” write the authors. “They (Trierweiller and Devedjian) were both committed (married). They were both hesitating about making the big leap and changing their lives. Patrick Devedjian dithered, so much so that Valérie Trierweiler allowed herself to be courted by another man from another political obedience: Francois Hollande. Little by little the relationship with Hollande took precedence over the other, particularly after the (Trierweiller’s) ultimatum in 2003 to which Devedjian did not give in….It was a bit like the Jules et Jim story. The two men preserved a great respect for one another.”

Far from suggesting depravity the authors convey a certain sympathy for the participants of this love triangle, invoking Francois Truffaut’s 1960s masterpiece ‘Jules et Jim’, in which Jeanne Moreau attempts to share her bed and her life with the two men who are in love with her. Both in print and in interviews, Trierweiller’s biographers carefully avoid judgemental language of any kind. The reason for this is that, despite the constant pressure from foreign media, and from social networks like Twitter, the French are still deeply attached to the lure of secrecy and mystery when it comes to the affairs of the heart.

Valerie Trierweiller is unpopular in France, not for her adultery so much as for her perceived vulgarity in dealing with it. Known for her public outbursts of jealousy towards her boyfriend’s ex, Segolene Royal Trierweiller’s famous Tweet in support of Royal’s rival for her parliamentary seat, tipped the French public into a deep aversion from which it is unlikely to budge. Disposed, as people are in France, to look favourably upon beautiful, well-dressed women, they could not forgive Trierweiller for letting them down with such a lack of savoir vivre. Widely referred to as ‘L’hysterique’, Trierweiller is a kind of anti-model of the presidential mistress, who is traditionally expected to be a woman of elegance and discretion. Some of the online comments about the news of her upcoming biography offer good insight into the general view of Trierweiller in this country:

Unbelievable!!! Now she’s “authorising” a biography…Tweetweiller really has hit rock bottom when it comes to ridiculousness and vulgarity. So this unpleasant and insipid courtisane wishes to show us the emptiness of her existence. She really wants to ram herself down our throats!

The Rebel??? The Arriviste would have been more appropriate for Ms Tweetweiller.*

The emphasis is not on Trierweiller’s love life (or on the fact that she had a long-standing affair with a married man) – that is entirely her business – but on how she manages it. She is castigated not for being an adulteress but for being a shameless self-publicist.

There has been a shift, however, in French attitudes towards infidelity and the publication of this biography, despite the circumspection of its authors, is proof of that. There is a growing sense that the public have a right to know about the private lives of their public figures, and an increasing feeling of unease when it comes to extra-marital affairs. Ever since the Dominique Strauss Kahn case, it is as if all the fun has been slowly leaking out of the party. Described for years by the French press as ‘a ladies man’ DSK was suddenly, in the light of the US media, a potential rapist. The word libertine, which had, certainly in Parisian circles, been seen as a compliment, was now tarnished forever.

Contrary to an article on the subject in The Daily Mail by the irrepressible Stephen Clarke, the British divorce rate is actually higher than it is in France, where fewer marriages end in divorce (38% as opposed to 42%). This is partly because marriage itself is on the decline here. The old model of staying married at all costs is no longer popular. Indeed, Sarkozy and Cecilia were the first married couple in the Elysees to break that mould. My own French children, now 24 and 26, both aspire to marital fidelity as do their friends and they tell me that they would rather not marry at all than accept infidelity.

* Comments on an article in Elle Magazine 30/09/2012

Woman on the edge…

wikipediaOn May 2nd, between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections, Francois Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler gave an interview to the women’s magazine, Femme Actuelle. A smiling head shot of the future premiere Dame de France illustrates the piece and confirms her photogenicity and her radiant status as a woman in love. With hindsight is is possible to discern, between the lines of this apparently innocuous interview, the somewhat pathological mindset that will lead to Trieweiler’s recent disgrace. For that is how her ‘tweet‘  in support of Olivier Falorni, Segolene Royal’s rival for the parliamentary seat in La Rochelle, has been widely received; as a disgrace and an outrage to the political process. In the aftermath of the tweet an anonymous source at the Elysees Palace confided to Le Monde journalist, Thomas Wieder: “I’m stunned. I expected to have to deal with governmental, not conjugal crises.”

In the Femme Actuelle interview Trierweiler “confides” that Francois Hollande has complete faith in her, “except for my tweets!” she adds. “Some would prefer me not to respond so frequently on this social network, but everyone respects my freedom. I have a strong character and I won’t be reined in.”

It’s all here, isn’t it? The familiar invocation of the heady word ‘freedom’ and of course ‘the strong character’ to justify bad behaviour. As if the French public is still just as in thrall as it ever was to the myths and excuses of LURVE. The problem is, that particular bubble has burst. DSK did it in New York with his unbridled phallus. For years, under cover of expressions like l’homme a femme (ladies man) or chaud lapin (no satisfactory translation available) he managed to get away with being quite simply out of control with women. The way the Valerie Trierweiler tweet has landed is a further demonstration that public opinion in France has shifted. Love can no longer serve as a viable defense for hysterical and obsessive behaviour, for however vehemently Trierweiler denies that the tweet was triggered by jealousy of her boyfriend’s ex, no one is fooled. Her rivalry with Royal has been widely documented. As Elise Karlin, journalist at L’Express puts it in her article entitled ‘Valerie Trierweiler: The Ministry of Envy,’ “Nothing can explain taking this public position except the outrageous and irrational jealousy of a woman towards the person who came before her in her man’s heart,” a jealousy  that, according to one of Hollande’s close supporters, polluted the entire Presidential campaign.

Six weeks after her interview with Femme Actuelle, Trierweiler goes on to Twitter and her hand shoots out. In pressing “enter” she not only compromises her own credibility by breaking her promise of political neutrality, she also publicly contradicts the President who has already given, however reluctantly, his support for Royal’s candidacy in La Rochelle.  Later in the  interview she says, “I would not allow myself to offer him my opinion on the nomination of one or other candidate…At his side I am quite simply his woman, like any woman in love.”

Trierweiler goes on, not for the first time, to boast her discretion: “People come up to me (at political meetings) and thank me or congratulate me for my discretion. They say I have the right attitude, of one who is there but in the background…” She often describes herself as ‘shy’ and ‘private’ but she also likes to trumpet her love for Hollande from the rooftops. She demanded that he kiss her on the lips in public to mark his commitment to her, insisted, even during the height of the presidential campaign that his evenings be kept free for time together, and on the night of his victory organised, without telling him, for their song to be played on the podium: Edith Piaf’s highly romantic La Vie en Rose.

I can have sympathy for Trierweiler’s feelings. Let’s face it, we’ve all been there. Or at least I have. The mad, needy, utterly unreasonable behaviour that can often come with loving someone. In some ways you have to take your hat off to her for the sheer lunacy of her behaviour. She is playing out for all to see the agonizing paradox of the love state, the soi-disant independent woman utterly enslaved to the object of her affection. It’s just a pity for her that this particular archetype has lost its kudos, even in France.