Marriage, the French Way

When Francois Hollande dines without a First Lady tonight, he’ll have turned a complicated French affair into an American problem. Philip Short on how far the French have come since the days of Mitterand and his not-so secret family. His biography of Mitterand will be out in April.

Twenty years ago the French, like most other Europeans, including even the British, supposedly the most puritanical among them, were flummoxed by Bill Clinton. Why on earth, instead of declaring through gritted teeth and a smokescreen of semantic subterfuges, ‘I did not have sex with that woman’, didn’t he tell Kenneth Starr (as any French politician would have done): ‘It’s none of your business. This is a matter for myself and my wife. Cease your voyeuristic poking around in places which have nothing to do with the public domain!’

It seems that similar incomprehension exists in the Unites States regarding the frasques — ‘indiscretions’ as Americans would call them—of the current French President, François Hollande.

I choked on my croissant at the lurid accounts in the New York Times, which positively wallowed in the story. ‘Caught in a clandestine affair that is more bedroom farce than Shakespearean drama—a beautiful actress, a scorned woman at home, surreptitious comings and goings on a most unpresidential scooter—Mr. Hollande is testing the limits of France’s tolerance,’ its Paris correspondent wrote gleefully. Hmmm, I thought once I got my breath back, so that’s what they mean these days by ‘All the news that’s fit to print’. The Washington Post, not to be left behind, headlined: ‘Pope Francis meets scandal-scarred French President’.

In fact Hollande’s new love life with the actress, Julie Gayet, may do him a power of good. His live-in partner, Valerie Trierweiler, from whom he recently announced his separation, was not liked in France. Ms Gayet, who is 18 years younger than the President, appears pleasanter than her stony-faced predecessor and, as the French have been quick to note, is much prettier.

There is, moreover, an encouraging precedent for this kind of disclosure. In 1994, the French weekly, Paris Match, published photographs of the then President François Mitterrand, and his 19-year-old daughter, Mazarine, with whose mother Mitterrand had formed an illicit second family, co-existing with his ‘official’ family for more than thirty years. Far from being shocked, the French applauded. “It’s a pity I don’t have one or two more daughters in reserve,” Mitterrand commented wryly. “It would have helped me climb back further in the opinion polls.”

That is not to suggest that François Hollande orchestrated his separation for political advantage. No politician likes his private life splashed over the front pages. Nonetheless, he does stand to gain from it. Long caricatured as ‘Hollandouille’ and ‘Fromage’—unflattering references respectively to a flabby French sausage and tasteless Dutch cheese—the affair suggests, in the words of a British woman television magnate, that “He’s got sex appeal!”

But the main significance of the episode lies elsewhere. There has been much wringing of hands in France about the impossibility of keeping anything secret in an age of social networks and the internet. Yet it was not the internet which outed the President’s new girlfriend, nor even the NSA, which, thanks to Germany’s Angela Merkel, is no longer allowed to eavesdrop on friendly Heads of State. The news was broken by a print magazine called Closer which specialises in paparazzi scoops. It was an old-fashioned American-style ‘Gotcha!’ story… and four out of five French people definitely do not approve. According to opinion polls, 77 percent of respondents felt that a politician should have as much right to a private life as anyone else.

So will this ‘journalism not of the gutter but the bidet’, as a veteran French political commentator put it, referring to the washbasin reserved in French bathrooms for matters of intimate hygiene, become the new norm?

The answer is almost certainly yes. Globalisation may ultimately be a profound force for good but in its passage it leaves little unscathed.

In the 1990s, the existence of François Mitterrand’s ‘second family’ had been known to newspaper editors for years. When Paris Match informed him that photographs showing him and his daughter had come into its possession, the President replied that he would rather they not be published but would not take action to prevent it. Hollande did not have that choice. In 2014 Closer chose to publish and be damned.

The other—and deeper—conundrum thrown up by the affair has less to do with journalism than with the institution of marriage.

Traditionally French presidents’ wives have put up and shut up. Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing, Danielle Mitterrand and Bernadette Chirac accepted their husbands’ escapades as part of the price of marriage. Often they sought consolation elsewhere—most famously Danielle Mitterrand, whose lover, Jean Balenci, lived in a ménage à trois with the future President and his wife for 25 years. One may think that that is a good thing or a bad thing, but it was their business, not ours: that was how they chose to live their lives.

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The façade started to crack when Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, shortly after taking office, divorced his wife, Cecilia, who had dumped him, and subsequently remarried.

Now comes Valerie Trierweiler who, far from putting up and shutting up, had herself rushed to hospital for sedation once the news of the President’s ‘indiscretion’ became public (a black mark in the eyes of the French, who expect their first ladies to be made of sterner stuff). But more important than Ms Trierweiler’s conniptions is that she and Hollande were not married: she was simply the President’s girlfriend. If a girlfriend can become First Lady—and girlfriends are not necessarily permanent fixtures—how many ‘first ladies’ might succeed each other in one presidential term? Should a mere girlfriend become a First Lady at all? One might be tempted to say ‘No’—yet today many couples, even those who stay together all their lives, prefer not to marry. Does that mean that a President’s ‘unmarried spouse’—pardon the oxymoron—can never be First Lady, whatever the circumstances?

The erosion of the traditional concept of marriage as the sanctified union of one man and one woman has marched in tandem on both sides of the Atlantic. Since the turn of the century, same-sex marriages have been authorised in much of Europe, including François Hollande’s France, and in many American states. The rejection of marriage by significant numbers of heterosexual couples began even earlier. Unlike François Mitterrand, who, when Danielle remarked that they were ‘an odd couple… each living separate loves’, took her hand and told her, ‘But you are my wife!’, François Hollande did not marry even the mother of his four children and partner of more than 20 years, whom he left for Ms Trierweiler in 2007.

Other times, other mores.

The status of the President’s unmarried partner was a French problem, but now, in the nature of things, it has become an American problem as well.