Mr. Normal

07.12.12

Thomas Hollande and the Tweet Rocking France

So much for normalcy. First Valerie Trierweiler tweeted a surprising endorsement. Now, Thomas Hollande, the son of the president, has weighed in—and caused a new stir. Tracy McNicoll reports.

Paris media are all atwitter on Thursday about the latest episode in the scandal known here as Twittergate. In the heat of a legislative election battle on June 12, French First Lady Valérie Trierweiler notoriously sowed political chaos in France with a single tweet. In a shock 137-character endorsement, Trierweiler stumped for a dissident leftist running against President François Hollande's Socialist Party's official candidate in La Rochelle, on the Atlantic Coast. The fact the official candidate was Ségolène Royal, the president's ex and mother of his four children, had one 24-hour news station bannering the headline "Psychodrama in La Rochelle." Rivals jeered it was Vaudeville. A month later, although Trierweiler has made herself scarce, the tweet won't go away. Now Hollande's eldest son is making headlines, appearing to slam Trierweiler in the press. The new French leader's famous pledge to lead a "normal" presidency takes another blow.

Back in June, Trierweiler's tweet was so surprisingly gauche, many initially believed it could only be a hoax, a hacked account, a joke. "Courage to Olivier Falorni who has not been unworthy, who has battled alongside La Rochelle residents for so many years with unselfish commitment," she wrote. It came hours after Hollande officially backed Royal against Falorni for the lower house seat, his photo appearing alongside hers on campaign flyers hot off the presses.

Royal, the defeated 2007 Socialist presidential candidate, had campaigned for Hollande's presidential win. For her trouble, she was favored to become speaker of the house if she could only win a seat in La Rochelle. But in the end, she was crushed at the ballot box, scoring only 37 percent to Falorni's 62. In a blistering speech after the vote, with her son Thomas offstage looking on, Royal called Falorni a "traitor" for, she claimed, winning office with right-wing and far-right votes. Asked whether Trierweiler's tweet hurt her chances, she demured, "I think it didn't help things, I would say, tactfully."

"I knew that something could come from her one day, but not such a huge blow. It's staggering," Thomas Hollande, 27, a mop-haired, bearded, and bespectacled young lawyer, is quoted saying in Thursday's edition of French newsweekly Le Point. Trierweiler's short missive was widely viewed as humiliating for President Hollande, who had pledged to be a "normal president"—bling-free, discreet, professional, a contrast to his flashy predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. "It pained me for my father," says Thomas of the tweet in the Le Point remarks. "He hates it so much when his private life is talked about. It destroyed the normal image he had built." The magazine reports that Thomas, brother Julien, and sisters Clémence and Flora no longer want to see the woman who is, essentially, their stepmother (Hollande and Trierweiler aren't married).

The magazine reports that Thomas, brother Julien, and sisters Clémence and Flora no longer want to see the woman who is, essentially, their stepmother (Hollande and Trierweiler aren't married).

Hollande fils is in the highly unusual position of having helped both of his parents run for president in France: Royal, unsuccessfully, in 2007 when she was heavily defeated by Sarkozy; and Hollande, who deprived Sarkozy of a second term with his victory on May 6. Thomas was actively involved in both parents' impressive web campaigns. And he went door-to-door with his mother in underprivileged neighborhoods for his father's election bid this spring. Once France's ultimate power couple, Hollande and Royal split after more than 25 years together. The pair made it official after Royal's 2007 defeat, although rumors that Hollande had long since taken up with Trierweiler, a reporter for Paris Match, had raged behind the scenes.

As the story of Thomas Hollande's new remarks gained traction—they made France's national evening news Wednesday night, even before Le Point hit newsstands—he has looked to distance himself from the article, denying he'd granted an interview. "The remarks reported, some of which are deformed or taken out of context, were made during an informal conversation with [Le Point reporter] Charlotte Chaffanjon," he told French media.

Chaffanjon, for her part, has stood by the piece, telling France Info radio, "I think he might have been overwhelmed by the amplitude of the controversy and the noise his remarks have made." She calls him "a bit of a victim of his own sincerity."

Whatever Thomas Hollande was the victim of, French commentators are calling it a gaffe. Le Point reports that his father asked him, in a tête-à-tête over dinner after Trierweiler's tweet, "not to feed the soap opera." But observers note that the remarks do just that.

At least one pundit blamed Hollande himself for staying mum, as it were, and not explicitly defusing Twittergate himself. "What is happening with regard to Thomas Hollande shows that it is necessary to definitively extinguish the media/political fire that threatens to rekindle at every moment," writes Le Nouvel Observateur's Bruno Roger-Petit.

Some expect the president to address the issue publicly, perhaps as soon his televised Bastille Day interview on Saturday. Many feel the president must define Trierweiler's role, while the first lady has said she wants to keep working in her field. "It's a factor of instability," Le Point quotes Thomas Hollande opining. "Either she is a journalist, or she has an office at the Elysée."

But it is hard to imagine Hollande addressing le Tweet will bring an end to the chatter. The Trierweiler saga is a glossy media favorite this silly season, even as Trierweiler has been a more discreet presence (and hasn't tweeted once) over the past month. This week, the entertainment magazine Closer makes beach reading of the couple's romantic future with the unequivocal cover headline "Zero Chance It Lasts." And the left-leaning daily Libération on Thursday suggests trouble deeper than the tweet. "[Thomas Hollande] is nevertheless only expressing what the president's entourage thinks more or less quietly: the First Lady journalist is a grenade with the pin taken out on the 'normal' trajectory of the new head of state."

Meanwhile, Trierweiler remains a staffer at Paris Match, writing culture stories that pundits giddily case for subliminal messages. Her piece this week? A book review of Jeanette Winterson's Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?