So French women do get furious after all . . .
Our Gallic sisters used to be relaxed about affairs. But the drama at the Elysee Palace suggests things have changed
'I don't much care if he has affairs 10 years from now," announced my Parisian friend, Sylvie, eyeing her husband-to-be as he made his way towards us across the restaurant. "Just so long as he's discreet and doesn't embarrass me."
I've never forgotten this statement, finding her pragmatism -- on the night we toasted the couple's engagement -- both terribly civilised and terribly sad. As it happened, her husband did have an affair, just a few years later -- and she did care. Just as the First Lady of France, Valérie Trierweiler, cares about her partner François Hollande's alleged affair with the actress Julie Gayet now -- cares to the point of being hospitalised for depression.
And while France is affecting a giant Gallic shrug (the French political commentator Agnes Poirier dismissed the story, published in French Closer magazine last weekend, as "a very British scandal about a very French affair", and Hollande refused to answer questions about it at Tuesday's press conference), we just want to know one thing: have the rules of conduct on French affairs changed? Or was their so-called liberalism no more than intellectual posturing?
"I think Madame Trierweiler has reacted in an extremely un-French manner to the whole thing," says Helena Frith Powell, author of Love in a Warm Climate: A Novel about the French Art of Having Affairs.
"Everyone knows French presidents have affairs," she insists. "Chirac did little else. Mitterrand famously responded to questions about his illegitimate daughter with the classically French phrase 'Et alors?' -- "So what?" What exactly has Ms Trierweiler achieved with this dramatic flouncing off to hospital? Instead of acting like generations of French women before her, she has drawn attention to herself and her role as the victim."
Victimhood may be popular in the US (when Bill Clinton's fling with Monica Lewinsky was exposed, Hillary was dubbed "the First Victim"), but cheated-upon French WAGs have never viewed it as a desirable state. It's undignified and demeaning -- however harrowing your ordeal -- but most importantly, Frith Powell explains: "It's just not chic. As Coco Chanel said: 'A girl should be two things; classy and fabulous.'
"Ms Trierweiler has shown us she is neither, and most of the French public won't blame the president if he opts for the younger, less melodramatic option now that he has clearly been forced into a decision."
Whether a liaison with an actress 20 years his junior is likely to be "less melodramatic" than the one President Hollande has been in with Trierweiler for the past seven years -- he left his former partner and the mother of his four children, the socialist politician Ségolène Royal for the Paris Match journalist in 2007 -- is anyone's guess. But if there's one person less popular than Hollande in France right now, says 35-year-old Charlotte Andreu, a publishing executive from Paris, it's Trierweiler.
"If he switched 'first girlfriends' and moved Julie Gayet into the Elysée today, I'm sure that he'd go up in the popularity polls," she tells me, citing the current French First Lady's "litigiousness" and "sulkiness" as the reason for her unpopularity.
"The majority of us don't give a damn about Hollande having an affair -- it's not really an issue. And the consensus is that since they are not married and don't have children, he is not committed to her. In any case, Gayet is much more presentable and this hospital thing is pure emotional blackmail -- forcing him to choose between the two before the presidential trip to America in two weeks' time."
Hollande's aides would doubtless agree. While a close journalist friend of Trierweiler wrote an article in Le Parisien newspaper on Monday describing the scene that took place at the Elysée last Thursday night, hours before Closer hit the news stands, as "a veritable political-romantic tsunami", with Hollande's confession of infidelity hitting his partner "like a TGV" train, the consensus among -- admittedly unsisterly -- French women is that Trierweiler already knew.
"People have been wondering whether Valérie's 'kiss me now' move on election day in 2012 was not in fact for Ségolène Royal's benefit but for Julie Gayet's," says Andreu. "Because if there's another woman, we always know. And we may be happy or unhappy about it but it's other people knowing, it's the social embarrassment that's unacceptable.
"That said, the new generation -- mine -- is becoming more anglophile in its vision of love and marriage. Maybe it's Hollywood movies or globalisation, but the women I know are less likely to accept affairs now."
Frith Powell agrees. "I would say that young French women growing up these days are probably going to be less forgiving than their mothers were about affairs, but I hope I never see the day when extra-marital sex will mean the end of someone's career as it can in the US and the UK."
If tradition and the laughably sexist media commentary lauding Hollande for "finally doing something interesting" are anything to go by, his presidency will remain unrocked -- by a sex scandal, at least. That a man who is said to own only a single pair of shoes and turns up to trysts on a scooter could ever have landed more than one blonde at a time may be shocking outside of France; but the French see Hollande as being guilty of only one thing: bad manners.
"Every tryst allegedly took place in a flat that was almost on the same street as his official residence," says Francesca Beauman, author of How To Wear White: a Pocketbook for the New Bride. "Traditionally, the done thing was at least to put a little physical distance between your two lives.
"The entire ugly kerfuffle puts me in mind of The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford, who lived much of her life in France and had a long and passionate love affair with a Frenchman. The book concludes with the brilliant observation that what's most important in a successful marriage is 'gentillesse -- and wonderful good manners'. Hollande has clearly failed to fulfil either of these criteria, which is unforgivable."
Romantic customs and moral judgments aside, Hollande's problem remains the same, insists Murielle Giuliano, the bestselling author of French Women Don't Get Fat. "The point is that Hollande is widely seen as an ineffective leader, so this does not help. It also points to his priorities (assuming the affair is happening) -- or the pressures he is facing and trying to escape."