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Sexual politics: a very French affair

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Théâtre français starring the French president François Hollande, his first lady Valérie Trierweiler and his lover Julie Gayet. French author Audrey Diwan analyses this very French affair...

French author and journalist Audrey Diwan is columnist for the French edition of Stylist and the co-author of How To Be A Parisian Wherever You Are In The World (Ebury Press), out in September

Please note: All information in this article was correct at the time of going to press on Friday 24 January

At the beginning of the Noughties, French political science students like me were asking themselves the same questions: would the creation of Europe make national politics obsolete and if so, what was the point of us having a president? The answer that has emerged over the last 10 years is simple: to give us a show. The European governments have been working on creating entertaining dramas to distract voters from their economical failures. This idea is not new: the poet Juvenal in Ancient Rome wrote that to attract favourable opinions you needed two ingredients: “bread and circuses”. In France we have lots of boulangeries and now we have the circus, starring the powerful man, the movie star and the deceived woman.

France is a country that likes cinema. And President François Hollande has concocted a very unique storyline for his country. Hollande campaigned using an argument which is dear to my compatriots – that he is a normal man. France’s most popular actors are men like Gérard Jugnot or Kad Merad – I invite readers to look them up to understand what represents the French ideal: an average, not particularly attractive man who most males can relate to. Hollande represented the idea that ‘every man’ can take on a great destiny, a very reassuring idea for the average Frenchman. During a televised debate with the incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential campaign, Hollande made a much remarked-upon intervention. He repeated these sentences, carefully enunciating the words like a West Coast rapper: “I, as President of the Republic, I will not be the leader of the majority. I, as President of the Republic, I will make our justice system function independently. I, as President of the Republic, I will ensure my behaviour is in each moment exemplary.”

Francois Hollande and Julie Gayet

And it is that last sentence which is now problematic. This man whose goal was to serve France could not, in the end, fight the urge to avenge his adolescence as an average-looking young man by kissing women who in the past would probably have refused to give him their telephone number. Which brings us to Valérie Trierweiler. In the first season of The Adventures Of François, the brilliant, ambitious journalist appeared the villain. She is the one who ‘stole’ Ségolène Royal’s personal and professional partner of 30 years, the father of their four children. The two women have had it out on Twitter (Trierweiler encouraging Royal’s political opponent Olivier Falorni) and in interviews (Royal admitting, “I don’t deserve this”). Most French women backed the disrespected woman. End of season one.

The public contempt for Trierweiler had not died down with time. Last March, the President was collared in Dijon by a woman who shouted, “Don’t marry Valérie!” adding, “We don’t like her in France.” Even by October, less than one in three had a good opinion of the First Lady, but it would be only a few weeks before things were reversed, with the cover of Closer magazine showing her as the deceived woman.

Meanwhile it seems as though actress Julie Gayet, Trierweiler’s official rival, has been made by this story. Most French people would be unable to name three of her movies, but the second season of The Adventures Of François has provided her with a genuinely leading role; one that will finally put her in the spotlight and on the most famous magazine covers.

Of course the necessary ingredient of all long-running series is suspense. At the time of writing, Trierweiler was out of hospital [she was admitted with “a severe case of the blues”]. A growing empathy is developing for her. At the same time, many complimentary articles on Gayet where journalists boast about “her political engagement”, “her incredible kindness” and the “irreproachable attitude of the single mother, attentive to her children” are being published. The French seem sensitive to the respective appeal of both women which increases the suspense when it comes to the much-discussed trip to the United States.

Hollande has promised to “clarify his personal situation” before 11 February, the date of his infamous trip. Personal friends of Gayet whisper that he really is in love with her, in which case his dilemma is not a personal one but a cultural one. Maybe it’s even a geometry problem – France likes triangles but the United States does not: imagine President Clinton on an official trip with Monica Lewinsky on his arm. How to explain to them that, in old (and strange) Europe, having lots of mistresses is synonymous with great success? Impossible.

Valérie Trierweiler

Puritanical America will judge Hollande so he will have to choose between his heart or the promise he made to the French public about exemplary behaviour. His critics are saying that having already disappointed France by his absence of political focus he might as well save his love story. The audience is desperately waiting to see if he will have the courage to disappoint them and whether emotions are stronger than reason. It is worth noting that the incredibly low popularity of the President – only 25% – has not shrunk with the revelations. “The one who has not sinned should throw the first stone,” said a 50-year-old male member of the public during an interview on the French equivalent of News At 10.

We could imagine that French women wouldn’t agree with this idea. But sex is not such an issue here, even when it’s adulterous – for the President at least – François Mitterrand had a hidden daughter for 20 years. In France, we are so used to these kinds of stories that even feminists don’t react. It would seem that if anything, this liaison excites the nation’s imagination; they finally see Hollande as a virile president worthy of his Eiffel Tower. Especially since the President has managed a real miracle: he has boosted the economy all by himself. Starting with the press – Closer sold 600,000 copies of the issue reporting the affair, up from their weekly average of 366,000. It would also be worth analysing the sales rise in DVDs starring Gayet, a little boost for cinema as well. So is this the best happy ending we could imagine? Hollande sacrificing his personal life to save the country? He did promise, “I, as President of the Republic, I will ensure my behaviour is in each moment exemplary.”

All’s well that ends well.

Photos: Getty Images

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