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Thursday 2 October 2014

Hollande: First lady 'doing better'

Published 21/01/2014 | 02:32

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French president Francois Hollande at a press conference in the Netherlands (AP)

French president Francois Hollande has said his first lady is recovering at a state residence at Versailles after being admitted to hospital following a report he is having an affair.

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The story has drawn widespread attention outside France and is overshadowing Mr Hollande's visit to the Netherlands, his first foreign trip since the report.

He told reporters that Valerie Trierweiler is "doing better" but refused to respond to another question on his personal life.

Ms Trierweiler was taken to hospital with what aides called extreme shock after the report earlier this month.

Mr Hollande has never married and the reported affair with actress Julie Gayet has prompted questions about whether Ms Trierweiler will stay in the state-financed office of first lady.

Neither Mr Hollande nor Ms Gayet has denied the alleged affair.

AP

The attention on his sex life threatens to overshadow Mr Hollande's efforts to wield influence on trade, Syria and peacekeeping in Africa.

He's off on five foreign trips in the next few weeks, including to tabloid-friendly Britain and culminating in a protocol-heavy state visit to the United States, where late-night comedy TV has already pilloried him.

The first public question he faced on his first international trip since the scandal broke was about 48-year-old journalist Ms Trierweiler. They have lived together since 2007.

In The Hague, Netherlands, a French TV reporter asked whether she is still officially the first lady.

For the second time in a week, he dodged the question. "Valerie Trierweiler is doing better, and is resting at the Lanterne," a presidential residence in the formal royal haunt of Versailles, Mr Hollande said, refusing to elaborate.

Alongside him was Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who is not married and has generally ducked questions about his love life.

Ms Trierweiler left a hospital on Saturday after a week suffering from what aides called severe shock, prompted when gossip magazine Closer published images of what it says is Mr Hollande sneaking out to see actress Ms Gayet.

Ms Trierweiler had not been expected to join Mr Hollande in The Hague or on any other upcoming trips except the US state visit on February 11, a glitzy event where her absence would likely stand out.

On Saturday, De Telegraaf, the Netherlands' largest circulation newspaper, published a story attempting to explain how Mr Hollande with his "receding hairline and glasses" could be so appealing to several accomplished, desirable women.

Its suggestion that power acts as an aphrodisiac - especially among simians - was underlined with a caricature of a pot-bellied, grinning Mr Hollande in a gorilla suit.

After the laid-back Netherlands, he heads to the Vatican. Roman Catholic teaching does not allow divorce or sex outside of marriage for its flock. But Pope Francis has been determined to reshape the image of the Church from a stern institution into a welcoming one, and is not likely to publicly address Mr Hollande's alleged peccadilloes.

Next week, the French premier leaves on an official visit to Turkey - the first in 22 years by a French president - to meet Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His Islamic-based, conservative government scorns sex outside of marriage and recently spoke of banning mixed-gender student residences.

Turkey's independent press has urged Ms Trierweiler to leave the French presidential palace, and Vatan newspaper referred to Mr Hollande as a "motorised womaniser" - a reference to his alleged ride to a tryst on the back of a motor scooter.

But in the United States, where first ladies often capture the imagination and Michelle Obama's recent 50th birthday was international news, the fallout might be the biggest.

"This will be a big issue and a big distraction," said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Florida-based Lynn University and author of many books about the US relationship with its presidents and their wives.

"Here in the United States we fixate on sex scandals and prominent people ... As he tries to get this behind him it'll stay in the news," he said. "Already the mistress is everywhere."

Mr Hollande is clearly concerned about the image France projects in the world. At a speech to foreign ambassadors in Paris on Friday, he underlined how France's mission was to be "a bridge between civilizations, societies and cultures - to speak to all".

The affair has overshadowed his Socialist-led government's policies.

French political analyst Dominique Moisi said "people are asking themselves whether he's going to travel alone or with someone" instead of thinking about his negotiating points.

"So in a way, the person he travels with has stolen the show," he added.

"The French feel, 'well, this is his private life. But his private life is damaging the image of France abroad, because the president of the republic of France does not look very dignified. So there is a link between the two."

AP

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