L’affaire Hollande: What “sophistication” costs a woman

Bit of mood music, maestra:

Zut alors! You think François Hollande is in hot water, thanks to his affair with an actress? Bof. He’s doing just fine. His consequences, personal and political, will be minimal, thanks to his adroit cowardice, and especially his gender. But for the women? Well, that’s another story…as EMMA’s Alice Schwarzer writes:

We feminists have fundamentally questioned marriage and advised women against it. At least earlier, when marriage placed men at a judicial advantage, and women at a disadvantage. Now we have to ask if we shouldn’t in fact urgently advise women to marry, at least in some cases. For example, in the case of the French president, François Hollande, 59, and his life companion, Valérie Trierweiler, 48.

What happened?

On January 11, the French gossip magazine, Closer, revealed that the president was having an affair with Julie Gayet, 41. In the meantime, we know that the story has been going on for over two years. The president would meet with the actress in an apartment a few hundred metres from the Elysée Palace. He would ride there on the back of a motor scooter, hanging on to his bodyguard, whom he sometimes ordered to leave croissants at the door in the mornings. Spicy extra detail: The apartment belongs to an actor who is currently in jail due to his connections to the Corsican Mafia.

On January 13, the tabloid, Le Parisien, revealed that Trierweiler had been hospitalized for a “nervous breakdown”. But just two days later, she made it known that she was ready to forgive him. He, however, remained silent, and only visited her sickbed days later.

The rumors of the affair had been running for months through Paris. But she seemed totally caught off guard. The president and his première dame had just come off a state visit to Brazil in December, she in high heels and Frenchly elegant, as well as spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. But now Hollande was telling the anxiously waiting nation that he would speak of the matter on February 11. Other than that, the president forbade every question, even at his big new year’s press conference, regarding his “private” life.

Private life? Trierweiler, a journalist by profession, was by no means living privately as the life-companion of the president. At the beginning of Hollande’s presidency, in May 2012, she gave up her career, except for her column in Paris Match, and acted as First Lady to the nation: state visits, receptions, opening daycare centres, honorary postings. For that, she had an office in the Elysée Palace, a budget, and several staffers.

Thanks to the president’s overt affair, all of that has been called into question. Who is Valérie Trierweiler? A mistress. One of several. She is not even Madame Hollande, unlike Mme. Chirac or Mme. Mitterrand. There was plenty of gossip over the affairs of both those presidents as well. But at least their wives were the social and legitimate wives at their men’s side. Even Mitterrand, who supported a second family for decades — with taxes, right down to the rent money and riding lessons for his out-of-wedlock daughter — never called his wife Danielle into question.

But what place does an abandoned mistress have, when her man takes a new mistress? And when the new one, as in this case, is even more popular than the old one, the highly unpopular Trierweiler? Unpopular, because she was often openly nasty to her predecessor. That was the well-known politician, Ségolène Royal, with whom Hollande had lived for 25 years and had four children. With her, too, he was not married.

When Hollande’s affair with Trierweiler became public in 2007, during Royal’s presidential campaign of all times (and surely this was not a coincidence) — that time, too, the then life companion was quickly prepared to forgive him. Royal went even further: She asked Hollande to marry her, with cameras rolling. After 25 years. And what did he do? Remained silent. But shortly thereafter, he spoke. The lover told journalists that Valérie Trierweiler was “the love of my life”. After 25 years with Royal, and four children together.

Hollande and Royal met as students. They are both close to 60 nowadays. 40 years ago, they were 20, and inspired by the May 1968 uprising and the women’s movement. Both are socialists, and Royal a noted feminist. Two modern people, who considered it unnecessary to marry. Just as Hollande later never thought of it either, with Trierweiler. Which now, as he will probably leave her, turns out to be downright practical. For him. He ends a relationship without any documented connection — and she falls into nothingness.

Valérie Trierweiler has just been released from hospital. It’s said that she will go to a spa, she needs “rest”. How convenient for Hollande. Because on February 11, he’s going on a state visit to the Obamas, where the modern French couple was already expected. Surely he won’t be able to take Julie Gayet along to the White House. Not yet.

What a man-drama! Die Welt‘s correspondent in France, Sascha Lehnartz, hit the nail on the head. He wrote: “Please try to imagine the following situation: Angela Merkel has been carrying on for months with [actor] Götz George…and three to five times a week, incognito, rides a moped from the Chancellor’s office to an apartment in Moabit, rented to Bushido. Sometimes she would bring her lover poppy-seed buns from the Chancellery’s own bakery. Joachim Sauer found it out on Friday through an article in the Super-Illu, and is now lying in the neurological department of the Charité with a nervous breakdown. And on Tuesday, Angela Merkel gave an international press conference, in which she said that the minimum wage is a great thing. That, roughly, is the current situation in France. Parbleu.

In actual fact, such stories can’t be turned around. A female head of state, who would never comport herself thus, would have to step down, because everyone would say that she had lost her marbles. But a male head of state who acts that way, according to 77 percent of all French(wo)men, well, that’s just “his private matter”. And they don’t even seem to ask the question whether someone who is so half-hearted and conflict-shy about his love life would not act the same way at his job, as president.

What conclusions are to be drawn from all this? What could one have advised Valérie Trierweiler to do at the beginning of the relationship? To that, there are two contradictory answers. The first one: Get married! The second: Remain strictly autonomous, like Joachim Sauer, the German chancellor’s husband.

The personal is political. So goes one of the most famous slogans of the women’s movement. It has been much misunderstood. In times of rampant exposition, some think that it means that women as well as men should make their private life public. No, it means just what we have just seen in the Hollande/Trierweiler case: The disenfranchisement of women plays itself out even in so-called private life. And that is not the personal problem of the woman in question, but that of all of society.

Translation mine.

Is getting married the feminist thing to do, then? Maybe not in and of itself. But yes, in the case of a prominent and public couple, who are in the spotlight and presumably have a lot of property as well as reputations at stake, it’s a different matter. Especially if, like Valérie Trierweiler, you are actually working in the official capacity of first lady of the land, and not in your original trade (journalism, in her case.) If that’s the way it’s going to be, then yes, marriage is the better way to go.

Whether a first couple has to be “traditional” about it is another matter. When the current president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, married his long-time common-law partner, Cilia Flores (they have a grown son together), it was couched as a patriotic act. They wanted to “strengthen the Venezuelan family”, so they said. They decided to set an example and make a statement about their love. And so they got married…not in white, not in church, but in their everyday clothes and at a registry office in Caracas, with their friend the mayor officiating. Flores is now known as “First Combatant”, not “First Lady”. As a long-time politician and former national-assembly president herself, she has quietly redefined the role of a female politician and political spouse simultaneously. And as a feminist and a strong woman in her own right, she will brook no scandal…and no disenfranchisement on any level. Her comportment during the putsch of 2002 made that clear: Flores, driven into hiding along with several other prominent Bolivarian members of parliament, released a video of herself even as the drama was still unfolding, vehemently protesting the coup and vowing to return at the first moment. Which she did, even though passing through streets potentially filled with unknown assassins and snipers posed a risk to her very life.

How different it is for Madame Trierweiler! She entered her political career (for that is what it is) on the wrong foot, displacing a popular and long-time partner with whom Hollande had four children. She humiliated Ségolène Royal publicly, forcing the latter to propose marriage on camera…and be rejected in the most cowardly manner. She triumphed off her rival’s tragedy. It must have been a heady moment, back when it was all amour fou and making youppi.

And now what’s gone around, has come around. She has gone from being the Other Woman, to being the woman about to get left for yet another Other Woman. And she doesn’t even have the small dignity of a legal marriage to protect her. She gave up everything she was doing…for this. As unsympathetic as she comes off for what she did to Ségo and her four kids, one can’t help pitying her a bit now. Her reputation, already shaky, is in tatters. And so’s her career, which will remain on hold until she regains her health. Who knows when, if or how she will bounce back? The workplace is not kind to middle-aged women re-entering it. Or even women well under middle age; just ask anyone who took time out from her career to be a stay-home mother. A few years can change everything, and bosses are fickle.

But I don’t suppose any of that matters very much to M. Hollande. He already showed what he was made of earlier, with his unceremonious dumping of his partner of a quarter-century. Once more, he conforms to an established pattern. Tant pis.

What has me scratching my head, though, is the blasé attitude toward all this in France. I guess, to a populace jaded with the tax-supported mistress and children of Mitterand, or the way Nicolas Sarkozy, mid-presidency, divorced his femme for a former supermodel (and mistress to Mick Jagger), or the whoremongering, maid-assaulting antics of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, this all must look a bit, well, routine. But there is a growing feminist current in France, as well, and they can’t be unaware of the legal implications of an unmarried couple in this unusual, and very awkward, position. Certainly they can no longer shrug off the sexist implications.

In Canada, this union would be considered a common-law marriage, since Hollande and Trierweiler have been living together for more than three years. As a de facto spouse, Valérie Trierweiler could sue, if not for divorce, then for half of his property, to ensure that she is not left wholly destitute by this sudden abandonment. She would need it, too, if she is unable to work at the moment, as appears to be the case.

Taking mistresses may be practically a marital tradition in France; the term “French marriage” was coined for situations where a couple stays married, but one or both still may have assignations on the side. Unfortunately, it appears that there aren’t sufficient provisions in French law here for a mistress who is married in all but name, and who gave up everything for her lover’s career. Not only is the situation awkward in that there is an unmarried first couple, but if he leaves her, it appears that he can make a complete getaway on his motor scooter, unscathed…and she is left scrambling to pick up the pieces of her very publicly shattered life.

Yes, the personal is political, even in modern France. And amatory “sophistication” comes with its own price, one paid in much more than just heart’s blood. Sadly, the women in François Hollande’s life have found out just how little recourse they truly have, and how steeply the deck is stacked against them.

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