In the space of a jaw-dropping tweet, First Lady Valérie Trierweiler sowed political chaos in France. In a stunning development many thought was a hoax, Trierweiler on Tuesday came out in favor of a dissident Socialist running in a key legislative election next Sunday. Trouble is, the dissident is running against Socialist President François Hollande's former romantic partner, Ségolène Royal. The Twitterverse—as well as Hollande's opposition—is eating it up, while the new first lady is being accused of overstepping her role. As Trierweiler confirmed the endorsement in a simple "Yes" text message in response to Agence France-Presse's query authenticating the tweet this afternoon, one 24-hour news station is talking up the "Psychodrama in La Rochelle."
The battle of La Rochelle might have been a provincial affair, sorted out quietly at the ballot box. But suddenly it looks more like Desperate Housewives, a phrase away from full-on catty. Hollande's Socialists did well in the first round of legislative elections last Sunday. His party even stands a chance of winning a majority government all on its own in next Sunday's runoff, which would spare the social-democrat Hollande a potentially awkward governing partnership with far leftists. But if there was one unhappy surprise for the Socialists on Sunday night, it was the fate of Ségolène Royal—the defeated 2007 Socialist presidential candidate and mother of Hollande's four children.
Royal, tipped to become speaker of the house in case of victory, is not certain to win a seat Sunday in picturesque La Rochelle, on France's rocky Atlantic Coast. She topped the first-round vote, but the dissident leftist Olivier Falorni, her only opponent in next Sunday's runoff, refused to back down in her favor. Royal is an experienced legislator, elected four times to France's lower house, but this is her first bid in La Rochelle and local rivals have painted her as an outsider. After Sunday's vote, Falorni even scored the backing of the local chapter of former president Nicolas Sarkozy's center-right UMP party, all too happy to aid in Royal's high-exposure demise.
And so the Socialist Party was pulling out the big guns to "Save Private Royal," as French media had put it. On Tuesday morning, her freshly printed campaign brochures included a clear endorsement from Hollande. "Ségolène Royal is the sole candidate of the presidential majority who can claim my support," Hollande's pitch read, his photo alongside Royal's. The leaders of the Socialist and Green parties stepped off the early train in La Rochelle to spend the day campaigning with Royal. But then, at noon, Trierweiler tweeted to her 77,000-plus followers (and counting), "Courage to Olivier Falorni who has not been unworthy, who has battled alongside La Rochelle residents for so many years with unselfish commitment."
After initial hesitation—pundits were convinced Trierweiler's Twitter account must have been pirated—the tweet was making banner headlines on 24-hour news channels. The impact, as one hyperbolic TV reporter live from La Rochelle put it, was "like a bomb." A feisty tweeter, Trierweiler had said she wanted to remain a journalist, despite her new role. She still works for the glossy weekly Paris Match. But it had been assumed she would stay clear of the political arena.
Tweeters compared the new "psychodrama" to Feydeau, the Belle Epoque playwright famed for bedroom farce. Jokey tweets about the incident, notably from right wingers, included the hashtag #vaudeville. One tweeter, the pseudonymed lawyer with a cult following known as Maître Eolas, asked pertinently, "I am not understanding who is supporting Falorni: a Paris Match journalist, the first lady, or the girlfriend of Ségolène Royal's ex?" Another tweeter mused that lunch at stepmother's house might get awkward for Royal's children. And many were keen to tisk-tisk about Hollande's ostensibly short-lived pledge to be a "normal" president, his bid to deliberately contrast with Sarkozy's blingy starification of French politics.
Before and after an event Tuesday afternoon, Hollande rushed past reporters without commenting on the incident. Royal, too, declined to comment, saying her energy is focused instead on the electorate. The dissident Falorni, meanwhile, has made the rounds on TV, visibly beaming.
Ironically, when Royal endorsed Hollande for the Socialist Party nomination last October after her own primary bid for a repeat presidential run failed, Trierweiler was quick to tweet thanks to Royal for her "sincere, objective, and unambiguous endorsement." Royal's backing then was seen as a classy move, given the former power couple's rocky end. Together for more than 25 years, although never married, Hollande and Royal's relationship ended when he took up with Trierweiler, a political reporter who had started on the left-wing beat in the 1980s. The secret split was only revealed officially after Royal lost the presidency to Sarkozy in 2007. Nevertheless, Royal campaigned hard for Hollande's victory last month, even going door-to-door with their eldest son, Thomas, 27.
The latest incident will give new life to the gossip that Trierweiler is irrationally jealous of Royal. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné reported last month that Trierweiler was angry enough about a story referring to Thomas Hollande as a product of the "Royal-Hollande couple" to text the writer, a Paris Match colleague. "Of the ex-Royal-Hollande couple!" she is alleged to have texted, emphasizing the past tense. "What are you playing at?"
Meanwhile, it is well known that Hollande abhors just this sort of spotlight. Indeed, he didn't make his relationship with Trierweiler official until 2010, well after he had decided to seek the presidential nomination. And at his inauguration last month, he decided to keep the proceedings strictly professional by not even inviting his children. Historically, legend has it that Hollande was unhappy in 1992 when Ségolène Royal, then a cabinet minister, invited a Paris Match photographer into the maternity ward to snap a picture of her with the couple's fourth child, their newborn daughter, Flora. As it happens, Trierweiler, then writing for Paris Match under her maiden name Massonneau, had a byline on the accompanying story.
As French politicians go, it is Sarkozy who was most enthusiastic throughout his career about letting the media into his private life—once even letting his young son pose under his desk, Kennedy-style—at least until his private life hit a rough patch. It seemed the writing was on the wall in 2007 during Sarkozy's first summer in office when the newly elected president embarrassingly showed up very late, and alone, to lunch with George and Laura Bush in Kennebunkport, claiming his second wife Cécilia had tonsillitis. Two months later, Sarkozy famously became the first French president to divorce in office, before a whirlwind romance and his marriage to Carla Bruni in 2008. If France's current first couple wanted to keep prying rumors at bay, Trierweiler's tweet wasn't the way to go about it. But first, there's an election to win.