Her complicated love life and impulsive nature is causing outrage at the Elysée Palace. But is Valérie Trierweiler a divisive force or simply a woman refusing to play the role of pliant partner to the French president?
The president of France, François Hollande, is not a man famed for sartorial snappiness. His work wardrobe consists of a series of neutral ties and unexceptional suits in safe, dark colours. On holiday, he favours oversized polo shirts and beige chinos. Much was made in the run-up to his electoral victory in May of his reputation as “Mr Normal” – a necessary counterpoint to the flashiness of his Cuban-heeled predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who became known as “President Bling Bling”. So it was understandable, perhaps, that for Hollande’s first official photograph with the newly formed government, he turned to his partner of more than seven years for advice on what to wear.
His girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, a 47-year-old former political journalist and television talk-show host, knows how to dress for the cameras. Trierweiler agreed to help Hollande pick out a suit and tie, but added pointedly: “Don’t expect me just to be doing this from now on.”
It is an anecdote that neatly encapsulates France’s new first lady. Beneath the exquisite exterior – the immaculately coiffed hair, the subtle make-up, the open-necked shirts with precisely the right number of buttons left undone – there lies a steely resolve to be much more than just a presidential consort. “She’s a person who has always lived by herself, for herself,” explains Alix Bouilhaguet, who co-authored La Frondeuse (The Troublemaker), a recent biography of Trierweiler. “[She] is incapable of living in the shadow of a partner – even when her partner is the president.”
For those of us on this side of the Channel who have become used to seeing party leaders wheel out their wives for a simpering pre-conference kiss, Trierweiler’s refusal to play the role of pliant wife is refreshing. But in France, it has done her no favours: a recent poll for VSD magazine found that 67% of French people had a negative view of her.
France can still be a profoundly sexist society where women are expected to fit neatly into certain pigeonholes. Trierweiler, who is neither an unapologetic career-woman nor a devoted wifelet who has forsaken her own ambitions for the sake of her man (and, by extension, the country) poses an impossible conundrum for the electorate. To them, her actions can seem confusing and contradictory. On one hand, she is a strong, assertive woman who made her way up through the ranks from modest beginnings. On the other, she is capable of outbursts of jealousy and neediness, played out on the national stage to the embarrassment of her partner and his voters. No one knows quite what to make of her.
Partly, Trierweiler is a victim of her own uncertain status. She and Hollande remain unmarried and he is on record as saying he believes marriage is a “bourgeois” institution. As such, she has no official standing as first lady and yet she has been forced to give up her job as a political journalist for Paris Match so as to avoid accusations of bias. Instead, she writes the odd book review for the magazine, insisting that she must continue to support her children (three teenage boys from her second marriage to fellow journalist and academic Denis Trierweiler). But the editor has announced he will not be renewing her contract at the end of the year. Recently, she has been talking of wanting to take up “humanitarian” work – that fail-safe option for spouses of powerful men who need to be kept occupied.
Throughout it all, she continues to have her own office in the Elysée Palace and five personal assistants – the cause of much grumbling in the press at a time of cutbacks. The former first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy recently urged the couple to marry in order to make things “simpler”.
But the French electorate has also been taken aback by allegations published in La Frondeuse that Trierweiler was reportedly sleeping with a married conservative minister, Patrick Devedjian, while she was having a relationship with Hollande. At the time, Hollande was still living with Ségolène Royal, the mother of his four children and a senior Socialist politician in her own right. Trierweiler is suing the authors over the so-called “ménage a six”. Still, the rumours remain. And although extra-marital dalliances are viewed tolerantly by the Parisian chattering classes, there is an underlying sense – unfair, perhaps – that Trierweiler relies on her feminine wiles to get ahead.
“She is a gorgeous woman, very attractive, with a lot of class and a big sense of humour,” says the novelist Laurent Binet, who trailed Hollande and his girlfriend during the election campaign for his nonfiction book, Rien ne se Passe Comme Prévu (Nothing Happens as Predicted). Binet says that, behind closed doors, Trierweiler is a lot funnier than the media coverage would suggest. “She pokes fun at herself… She used to call herself ‘Marie Antoinette’ to me which is not exactly flattering in France, as you know… In a way, she could be English, if she was not so impulsive.”
Her impulsiveness has got her into considerable trouble. In June, Trierweiler caused a public outcry when she wrote a tweet expressing her support for the dissident Socialist candidate Olivier Falorni. Falorni was standing for election in La Rochelle against Hollande’s ex, Ségolène Royal. According to one source, the tweet was sent in an impetuous moment of anger from the Elysée Palace after she discovered that Hollande had endorsed his former partner behind Trierweiler’s back. An enraged Trierweiler was said to have called the president at the office where he was in a meeting and screamed at him down the phone.
Royal went on to lose the election. As a result, her furious children no longer speak to their father’s girlfriend, despite the fact that Trierweiler issued a public apology. Last month, Royal was quoted as saying Trierweiler was suffering from “Rebecca syndrome” – a reference to Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a second wife obsessed by her husband’s first marriage.
“If he loves Valérie Trierweiler it’s because she embodies a certain kind of freedom and transgression that he doesn’t allow himself,” explains Bouilhaguet. “He is discreet and introverted. She is explosive. They complete themselves as a couple.
“She was indispensable to Hollande’s election campaign. She helped him, accompanied him, understood him when no one thought he could one day become president. But once he was elected, she had to cope with seeing him grow away from her. She likes to maintain an exclusive rapport with him… but the president’s men don’t give her an easy ride because they think she undermines his popularity.”
Part of the problem is that Hollande, with his reputation for steadiness and stolidity, is publicly undemonstrative. In Entre deux Feus (Between Two Fires), a book published earlier this year by investigative journalists Anne Rosencher and Anna Cabana, the authors write that Hollande’s colleagues “beg him to ‘reassure Valérie’. He never comforts her by showing his affection in public. Too much modesty, too much self-control. With him, everything is confined. With her, it goes overboard.”
Trierweiler has certainly made no secret of her own feelings. At the Socialist party convention in January, when 20,000 supporters gathered for the presentation of their candidate over three hours, Ségolène Royal was airbrushed out of recent history. There was not a single mention of her. Two months later, the campaign manager admitted it was Trierweiler who had made him exclude Royal’s name.
Then, in May, at a victory rally to mark Hollande’s electoral triumph, she arranged for “their” song – Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” – to be played on stage as a surprise. When Hollande gave her a peck on the cheek, she insisted that he kiss her on the lips instead. Photographs of the uncomfortable clinch made many of the next day’s front pages. Media commentators now compare her to the Marquise of Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV who schemed behind the scenes to eliminate rivals and promote those she trusted at court.
And yet there is little doubt that her actions spring from a genuine tenderness. In a magazine interview earlier this year, Trierweiler described herself gushingly as “just like any woman in love”. Hollande’s most irritating habit, she revealed, was his inability to close cupboard doors. “But eventually I understood that it was a character trait: someone who never closes a door has nothing to hide!”
Despite his openness, Trierweiler has been left feeling insecure. The public perception of her veers between a paranoid harpy haunted by the spectre of Hollande’s ex and a manipulative seductress who sleeps with powerful men to get what she wants. And Tweetgate is still causing ripples.
According to Lucy Wadham, author of The Secret Life of France, the episode showed Trierweiler in the worst possible light: “She claims to be a serious journalist [yet she] not only breaks all the rules of neutrality and discretion but passes for a complete hysteric in the eyes of the French public.”
Anna Cabana agrees: “She had the chance to be France’s first truly modern first lady. She could have kept her job, her independence and refused to play the role of trophy wife… Instead, confusion reigns. She’s a first lady and a journalist who mixes the two roles, a woman who isn’t willing to give anything up.”
Her actions have tarnished Hollande’s reputation as a stable pair of hands. Increasingly, he is seen as hen-pecked and ineffective: a man who is unable to control his domestic affairs, let alone an entire country. In the popular political puppet show Guignols de l’Info (the French version of Spitting Image), Trierweiler is portrayed as caustic and domineering; Hollande a bumbling nincompoop.
But there are signs of a slight softening of attitude in some quarters. Matthew Fraser, a professor at the American University of Paris, says that Trierweiler is a victim of “the macho culture in the French elites”, and when Rachida Dati, a former Sarkozy minister, was interviewed on the Europe 1 radio station a few weeks ago, she denounced the double standards at play: “Why not reveal the triple, quadruple lives of certain male politicians? I find it shameful what is written about her.”
The feminist writer Isabelle Germain adds that the media finds it difficult to accept Trierweiler because, “she is not the traditional first lady and that annoys them. They focus on her relationship with Ségolène Royal and present her as the jealous woman. It poses questions about the place of women in relation to men in society at large. It’s very emblematic”.
Throughout it all, Binet says that Trierweiler has maintained her sense of humour. Instead of agonising over her portrayal as a conniving pre-revolutionary courtesan in the popular press, she jokes about it. “After Tweetgate,” Binet recalls, “she told me she believed the journalists would send her to the guillotine if they could.”
Valérie Trierweiler is seen by many as Hollande’s polar opposite, not only emotionally but also because of their different backgrounds. Whereas Hollande is an upper-middle class technocrat, whose first job after university was as an aide to François Mitterand, his girlfriend was born into an impoverished family from the provinces.
Trierweiler’s father, Jean-Noël Massonneau, lost his leg as a 12-year-old when, during the Second World War, a childhood dispute resulted in a live grenade being thrown. An American soldier was killed. Jean-Noël survived, but had his leg amputated.
“He never complained [about his disability],” Trierweiler’s brother William recalled in an interview with Le Parisien newspaper last month. “It wasn’t even discussed.”
The young Valérie grew up in a four-bedroom house in the city of Angers, in western France, the fifth child of six. Her father was a disciplinarian who instilled in his children a reverence for education. The children were encouraged to express their own opinions during debates over the dinner table and, every night before bed, would be expected to read for half an hour.
Valérie did well at school, but always appeared more interested in clothes than politics. “I would have expected to see Valérie as a fashion critic rather than a political journalist,” admitted her mother, Jeannie Massonneau in Le Parisien. Valérie had bigger ambitions: she won a place at the Sorbonne to study history and political science, eventually graduating with a master’s degree. She married a childhood friend, Franck, but the union was short-lived and ended in divorce.
By 1988, she was working as a reporter on Profession Politique magazine and then for Paris Match where she started chronicling the fortunes of the Socialist party. In 1992 she interviewed the environment minister, a promising young politician called Ségolène Royal who had just given birth to her fourth child with Hollande. The three became friends: Trierweiler later confessed that she shared many political opinions with Hollande and that he made her laugh, but it wasn’t until later that the two of them became lovers. By this time, Trierweiler was married to her second husband and cutting something of a dash in political circles. At a Bastille party in the mid-2000s, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was then interior minister, arrived with his then wife, Cecilia. Sarkozy is said to have sidled up to Trierweiler and whispered “How beautiful you are” in her ear – all the time holding his wife’s hand.
By 2005, Trierweiler and Hollande were lovers. Two years later, Royal and Hollande announced they were separating. Trierweiler and her lover moved into an apartment in the 15th arrondissement and Paris Match, suddenly aware of the conflict of interest, reassigned her so that she was no longer covering the political brief.
Her fellow journalist Alix Bouilhaguet, who remembers Trierweiler from this time recalls her being “different from the other [journalists]. She had a way of holding herself apart, of being an observer… She can appear a bit cold, a bit haughty. I think it’s a way of protecting herself. Despite appearances, there’s no doubt that she lacks self-esteem”.
The confidence that Trierweiler did possess was almost entirely a consequence of her professional success. She was a woman who prided herself on her ability to make her own luck. “I haven’t been raised to serve a husband,” she has said in the past. “I built my entire life on the idea of independence.”
To begin with, Trierweiler persuaded herself that life could carry on as normal after going public with Hollande and that she would be able to juggle her career as a political journalist with her private life but, says Matthew Fraser, “she seemed to lack the maturity to keep the two separate. She was always on the phone… building her own power base in the system, confusing the two roles.”
The French do not judge Trierweiler for her unmarried status but for this perceived lack of decorum. In many respects, the presidency has replaced the monarchy for a nation still struggling to come to terms with the consequences of their revolutionary past. The first lady is therefore expected to act with the necessary poise.
“The woman behind the French president (for that is where France’s first lady belongs) is required to be beautiful (if possible) but, more importantly, discreet and long-suffering, like the women in all patriarchies,” explains Lucy Wadham. For an intelligent, self-sufficient and liberated woman such as Trierweiler, the constraints of the position are stifling. “She is obviously frustrated,” says Binet. “She doesn’t understand why she should give up her job for her boyfriend.”
It remains to be seen whether Trierweiler will prove to be an electoral help or hindrance to François Hollande. He now has the dubious distinction of being the most unpopular French president at the six-month mark of a mandate: a mere 36% of French people have confidence in him according to the latest poll for Le Figaro magazine. Trierweiler is not faring much better. But whatever her future holds as first lady, it would surely be a shame if all it consisted of was picking out the best suits for her man to wear.