Vive la difference! The French nation has been rocked by the latest scandale de sexe involving President Francois Hollande, his girlfriend, the actress, the flat, le moto, and the Corsican mafia. And, getting out at La Gare du Nord — your correspondent has briefly moved to France, because it is cheaper to live here and commute on the Eurostar than pay London rents* — the papers were full of it.
“The Three Lessons of the Arab Spring” screamed Le Monde. Ah — Le Figaro had Hollande on the cover — oh, it’s about his press conference on labour market reform. Only Liberation, the old communist daily, got in on the game, with a shot of Hollande and first “dame” Valerie Trierweiler, and the headline “Une affaire de statut” — a neat pun on “a question of status” and, well, “fucking upwards” — ahead of an agonising press conference the President was later to give. Given what the Brit tabloids would have done, this was either admirable restraint or evidence of a near-suicidal desire not to sell newspapers.
This is, after all, the affair that has everything. Hollande — the short, flabby, dumpy, moley President of the Republic — was elected in 2012 replacing Nicolas Sarkozy, who by that time had all the credibility of a Charles Aznavour tribute act at the Lille Convention Centre. Sarko had been elected to work over the whole country with neo-liberal structural reform, divorcing his wife instead to marry model/singer/whatever Carla Bruni and, well, it wasn’t structural reform that got the work over.
The patient French public badly wanted someone to run the country for a change and assumed that voting for Hollande, a socialist, was a sure bet for boring dutifulness. True, he was the ex-partner of the last, unsuccessful Socialist candidate, Segolene Royal, from whom he had split in 2007, a month after she lost the poll, but hey no story there. And there had been a little overlap with his new partner, Valerie Trierweiler, but nothing to worry about. The man was not un player.
So news that he has set a new personal best for the French — not merely cheating on the mother of your children, but cheating on the girlfriend you cheated on the mother of your children with — has got even a pretty jaded country interested, not least because of the manner of execution. The other woman is Julie Gayet, who is, sigh, an actress, and, quelle surprise, bears a sort of resemblance to Trierweiler, but with 18 years knocked off the top. Gayet was stashed in a flat, sorry, had an apartment, a few minutes from the Elysee, and it was this casual arrangement that eventually became too tasty for the French press to ignore. Hollande’s visits were pretty casual — no security staff, and on motorcycle — and all a snapper from French glossy Closer had to do was hang outside for a couple of nights to get a full spread of the presidential dalliances, which hit the streets last week.
These things are usually handled in a civilised fashion — as Juliette Binoche said, she gave up doing French movies because they were all “three people have an affair and then they go to a restaurant” — but M.Trierweiler threw things awry by promptly checking herself into hospital citing “exhaustion”, that old rock ‘n’ roll standby. Fresh opportunity to kick the story along came when the apartment was linked to the Corsican mafia, because another of the women living there — don’t ask — was related to someone who had been offed in a Corsican hit or something, by that point my language skills were running out.
“The Sun would have featured a centre spread of nipple slip shots from Instagram.”
There was also the issue of who exactly the first lady now was, since Trierweiler has been on a few official trips as first girlfriend. But is she really second girlfriend, i.e., would be too much trouble to break up with? Who goes to DC next, Trierweiler? Gayet? An Australian backpacker named Desley he’ll pick up at Orly? The issue becomes constitutional. What really gave it the coup de grace was the moto bit — since Hollande himself does not ride, the machine had to be piloted by an official chauffeur, with Hollande on pillion.
This is how French farce works. The end is sublime, the means subject to difficulty, so every step along the way becomes perfectly logical.
Yesterday, Hollande faced a long-scheduled press conference, intended to be about the sluggish economy (much tweeted joke: “I will not be talking about my private life.” “Mr Hollande, how is the economy?” “Hey, did I mention I’m screwing an actress?”), in which he announced modest forecasts on job growth and a series of public service cuts. The international press were generally gobsmacked at the easy ride the local press gave him on private matters (Le Canard Enchaine, the satirical mag, had dug up an actual angle — Gayet had been in the running for a prestigious government cultural fellowship to Italy, to be given out by another of Hollande’s mates, and is, err, no longer in the running for that), while they were generally sniffy about the slavering interest in the manifestly sane Gallic assumption that monogamy sucks.
Libo did it best, by having it both ways, so to speak, splashing the story and leading out with a 2000-word essay on the cultural meaning of this three/four/five-way split. “Two seasons of Christmas trees and cakes of kings have passed since Valerie Trierweiler promised not to become ‘first gal’ … now she has passed to the other side of the mirror to don the old tunic of mistresses past …” It went on like this for four pages. The Sun would have featured a centre spread of nipple slip shots from Instagram.
Vive la difference, bien sur.
*You have no need to know this, but I have a need to tell you — Rousseau, Confessions
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.