05.10.12

Valérie Trierweiler: France’s Feisty First Lady

Gone are Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the star-ification of French politics. Tracy McNicoll on political reporter turned first lady Valerie Trieweiler’s uneasy waltz into the Elysée Palace.

On Sunday night in France, after the Socialist François Hollande finished his very first speech as president-elect, the accordionists took over. On the cathedral square in the little heartland town of Tulle, they broke into a rendition of the Edith Piaf classic, "La Vie en Rose," beamed into homes and onto big screens in squares just like it across the country as millions watched. The song was a special request by France's striking new first lady, Valérie Trierweiler. And suddenly Hollande invited Trierweiler up on stage. He led her in a few dance steps, her auburn waves framing a broad smile, and kissed her on the cheek at the gleeful crowd's bidding.

It was a rare move for Hollande, a man known to be so discreet about his private life that it took him five years to make the couple's relationship official. (In dire contrast, his flashier rival, the defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy, famously courted ex-supermodel Carla Bruni at Disneyland Paris, and later as a playboy in black turtleneck and Ray-Bans on holiday in Egypt—two months after his divorce in office in 2007). For Hollande and Trierweiler, "La Vie en Rose" was a brief, tender moment at the end of a long, bitter campaign.

While Hollande fought Sarkozy for France's top job—the incumbent underestimating the eventual champ, seeing him as weak—Trierweiler, too, was subject to snide attacks. When Trierweiler, a journalist by profession, was given an office at Hollande's campaign headquarters, some grumbled that the candidate's strong-willed partner would be just like Cécilia, Sarkozy ex-wife. Cécilia had helped Sarkozy get elected, working close by his side for years, but she had a reputation for meddling in personnel decisions, getting favorites promoted and enemies sidelined.

During an increasingly nasty 2012 campaign, Trierweiler was also the target of schoolyard-grade bullying. One Sarkozy crony, a hardline parliamentarian, used Trierweiler as material in a dubious campaign trail comedy bit, calling her "Valérie Rottweiler... and that's not nice for the dog!" Ba-dum-ching. Sarkozy was forced to apologize. As recently as Wednesday, a male radio reporter tweeted, "To all my female colleagues, I say: Screw strategically, you might find yourselves First Lady of France ;-)." He was fired within hours.

Born and raised in the Loire Valley city of Angers, the fifth child of six, Trierweiler's upbringing in rent-controlled social housing has been described as "modest," a term she bristles at. Her father lost his leg to a mine as a child during World War II; her mother was a cashier at the local skating rink. Née Massonneau, Trierweiler briefly married a childhood sweetheart, but her German surname is from her second husband, the father of her three teenage boys, 15, 17, and 19. Trierweiler, 47, becomes France's first first lady to not be married to the president. She and Hollande have both said the decision to marry will be a private matter, that the couple won't rush to the altar to satisfy protocol.

Now and then, Trierweiler has seemed uneasy about stepping into the limelight. This week, as photographers set up camp outside the apartment she shares with the president-elect in Paris's 15th arrondissement, Trierweiler, a feisty tweeter, rattled off a tweet designed to make them go away. The tone was passive-aggressive: "[I'll] thank my colleagues to respect our life and our neighbors. Thank you for not camping in front of our home. Thank you for understanding." Her so-called colleagues appeared to respond, "We aren't colleagues anymore."

In fact, Trierweiler has lived through plenty of campaigns. A longtime reporter for the legendary glossy weekly Paris Match, she covered politics for two decades and still writes on culture matters for the magazine. She first met Hollande while covering left-wing politics fresh out of college in the late 1980s, although they did not become involved romantically until 2005.

Indeed, in a clandestine way, Trierweiler was intimately involved in France's last presidential campaign. In 2007, Hollande was the Socialist Party chief and Ségolène Royal, Hollande's partner of more than 25 years and the mother of his four children, was the party's ultimately unsuccessful candidate for the presidency. Behind the scenes then, Sarkozy's center-right UMP party looked to exploit the rumor that the power couple had secretly split, and that Hollande was living with a mistress, in order to discredit Royal. (“It’s a well-known fact,” one UMP operative told Newsweek in October 2006, naming Trierweiler, weeks before Royal won the nomination. “But you didn’t hear it from me.”)

She and Hollande have both said the decision to marry will be a private matter, that the couple won't rush to the altar to satisfy protocol.

But the public, including Royal's passionate grassroots support, was generally none the wiser. Indeed, as far as they were concerned, it was Hollande who was poised to become, in a manner of speaking, France's "first lady" back in 2007. The break up was only made public after the election, when Royal revealed she had asked Hollande to leave their home, free to pursue the rumored romance. But Hollande didn't make his relationship with Trierweiler official until, slimmed down and mounting his own presidential bid, he told a tabloid in 2010 that she was "the woman of his life."

Royal, in a classy move under the circumstances, would go on to endorse her former partner after  her bid for a repeat run for the presidency was defeated in the first round of Socialist primaries in October 2011. (Trierweiler thanked Royal on Twitter for her "sincere, objective, and unambiguous endorsement.") Royal actively campaigned for Hollande this year, despite an early faux-pas that saw him leave her out of his campaign kick-off speech in January. She went door-to-door with the couple's son, Thomas, to drum up support, led rallies, inaugurated Hollande's campaign web radio, fired off cutting tweets in the candidate's defense, and didn't hesitate to play up corruption allegations against Sarkozy while the candidate hung back. (Hollande seems a fan of strong women. His biographer cites Hollande's late mother, Nicole, a vivacious left-leaning social worker, a sunny contrast to Hollande's authoritarian far-right leaning father, as a major influence.)

Trierweiler, meanwhile, was pulled off the political beat at Paris Match in 2006 when management became aware of her affair with the Socialist leader. (Indeed, her husband at the time, Denis Trierweiler, also worked for the magazine.) But she continued political reporting elsewhere, including hosting a political interview TV show in early 2011. When Hollande won the Socialist nomination last October, Trierweiler was hurt when Paris Match excluded her from story meetings altogether on principle. Later, in March, she lashed out against the magazine when it published photos of her without notice.

On the trail, Hollande's elegant consort often accompanied her candidate, sitting in the front row at his rallies, trying to keep the serially late Hollande (he's very chatty) to a schedule, and plying him with tea and lozenges as his voice cracked from rousing stump speeches. In April, during a crowded off-the-record briefing with Hollande's communications director on the train to a rally in Rennes (where Hollande would reunite onstage with Royal), it was surreal to see Trierweiler at the other end of the bar-car, enjoying cookies with friends, two-cheek kissing a prominent editorialist, a former colleague.

It still all seemed surreal for the reporter-turned-reportee after the campaign concluded, successfully, on Sunday night. "It's a bit like I've stepped into my articles," she told Agence France Presse. This week, she and Hollande appear together on the cover of Paris Match. She features prominently in the "64 special pages" of its "souvenir album" election issue.

Trierweiler now succeeds Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as France's first lady. Hollande pledged to be a "normal" president, partly to contrast Sarkozy's taste for bling. And Trierweiler's background might make it easier for her to come off as normal compared to Bruni-Sarkozy, an Italian heiress turned supermodel turned popstar.

The French were appalled as Sarkozy ostentatiously wooed Bruni early in his term and it came to symbolize his so-called “bling period,” when the new president seemed more concerned about having flashy fun than solving regular people's economic problems. But the public did seem to warm to the discreet, feline Bruni, after they married in 2008, as Sarkozy associates played up her allegedly calming effect on the hyperactive president. But the bombshell first lady's attempt to play the everywoman during this campaign was met with some mockery. When she was quoted saying, "We are modest folks," she claimed the line was a misquote but it made easy pickings for the many critics of the so-called "president of the rich" when Sarkozy was campaigning as the "candidate of the people." And the interview Bruni gave in February to TV Magazinein which she is pictured in unusually schlumpy garb, talking about her tastes for reality television and Desperate Housewives—rang false, as too far from her svelte image not to be a transparent publicity stunt so late in the game.

Trierweiler has plans to keep working despite her new role because, she says, she wouldn't be comfortable with the French state or Hollande picking up the tab for her children. She wants to continue as a journalist. "I am and I remain passionate about news. I know politics, I know the media," she told Agence France Presse. "Indeed, I think it will be easier for me at the Elysée than it was for Carla Bruni. She came from a world totally foreign to politics. She didn't necessarily know the codes."

But some of Trierweiler's former confrères aren't so sure. It's worth noting that French purists despise the term "première dame," (first lady)—seen at best as a frivolous American import or an institutional inaccuracy, since traditionally the president's wife in France has no official role. At worst, it is now associated with Sarkozy's star-ification of politics, a legacy of the media fascination with politician's private lives that he was the first to cultivate throughout his career. As such, it isn't as clear that Bruni, so accustomed to the catwalk, wasn't better equipped for Elysée Palace life than Mr. and Mrs. Normal.