Chaos and Desire: French President Hollande Meets the Press

In a bumbling press conference, the French president refused to answer questions about his alleged affair and declined even to say whether Valérie Trierweiler remains First Lady.

When all was said and done, after a marathon press conference that lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes on Tuesday, the President of France left his First Lady twisting in the wind. Sometime before his state visit to Washington D.C. on February 11, he said, a decision would be made about whether she’s with him in that role. As for his alleged affair with a younger actress, he would neither confirm it nor deny it, and lambasted the gossip magazine Closer, which first reported it. “My indignation is total,” he said.

Hundreds of reporters had packed the opulently decorated Salon des Fêtes in the Élysée Palace, where naked cherubs and ecstatic nymphs gaze down from the gilded ceiling. The journalists wanted to see how President François Hollande would explain his alleged trysts with actress Julie Gayet. Rumors about the affair had circulated for months, but when photographs that appeared to confirm it were published in the gossip magazine on Friday, First Lady Valérie Trierweiler checked into a hospital and she has been there ever since.

Of course, Hollande chose not to explain anything. All couples have their problems, he said. They should be left to work them out privately. And that was as far as he’d go—except to say, in response to a direct question about whether Trierweiler is still the First Lady, her status has yet to be determined.

In Hollande’s interminable encounter with the press, he spent perhaps four minutes shutting down inquiries about the alleged love triangle. But despite his pose of resolutely controlled anguish, one got the sense he was offended not just because his privacy was invaded, but because bourgeois norms are beneath him. Hollande, 59, has the peculiar arrogance of the left-wing elite in France, what used to be called “la gauche caviar,” who simply see no reason they should live by the rules of conventional moralizers.

Hollande, for starters, has never been married. He had four children with his partner, Socialist politician and former presidential candidate Ségolène Royal. But when she reached her early fifties, he dumped her and took up with Trierweiler, a journalist who was then in her early 40s. Now Trierweiler is 48 and, perhaps coincidentally, Hollande is alleged to have fallen for Gayet, 41, who is something of an eternal ingénue.

(The delicate Gayet, who still has the girlish habit of biting her lower lip when the cameras focus on her at Cannes, has appeared, according to her IMDB filmography, in 90 little movies few of us have ever heard of. Among the rather intriguing titles in recent years: “Chaos and Desire,” and “Portraits of Mistresses.”)

Hollande, in person, is supposed to be very charming and witty, which may explain his rather remarkable success with such beautiful and intelligent women over the years. Three reporters I’ve talked to who covered his campaign in 2012 thought him quite charismatic. But if so, that’s never come across to the French public, which voted heavily against his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and without much enthusiasm for Hollande, even though he won.

A recent poll showed that before news broke on Sunday of Trierweiler’s hospitalization, 77 percent of the respondents thought the president should be allowed to have a private life and 80 percent did not change their opinion of him as a result of the allegations. But there’s little political consolation in those numbers: Hollande’s overall approval rating has been so abysmal—in the 20 to 30 percent range—that if it went very much lower, zero would be within the margin of error.

The great irony of today’s press conference is that it was planned long ago, and well before the Gayet revelations, to present Hollande as a dignified, authoritative figure committed to far reaching (and surprisingly business-friendly) reforms. Instead, he came across as a man out of touch with his people, perhaps even with his own emotions.

Nor is this soap opera likely to end anytime soon. The latest headline to pop up in the feverish coverage is that Gayet is four months pregnant. There’s no confirmation at all. But, of course, there will be no end to the new questions.