Mixing politics and pleasure
With Brigitte Trogneux poised to become a thoroughly modern first lady, John Downing looks at the glitzy soap opera of French politics
When French President Nicolas Sarkozy crash-landed into French politics with the Italian singer and model Carla Bruni in 2008, the pair accelerated a change in the terms of public discourse in France.
That boisterous couple were followed by the very public infidelity sagas involving the world's most unlikely boudoir gymnast, President Francois Hollande, and his partner, Valérie Trierweiler, who went on to publish the entire sorry tale in a book which spared none of the bed-hopping, back-stabbing details.
The election run-off in 11 days time between centrist Emmanuel Macron and Front National's Marine Le Pen is the first time there is not a representative of at least one of the two right-left blocs which have dominated French post-World War II politics. But there are other accompanying changes as 'le showbiz' continues to merge with 'la politique'.
Even a decade ago, French first ladies were - by tradition - occasionally seen and rarely, if ever, heard. However, French long-standing reticence about mixing politicians' public and private lives is also changing fast.
The partners of the heavy-hitting candidates in 2017 have been very visible. Francois Fillon's Welsh-born wife, Penelope, played an ill-starred role, and even got a "gate" appended to her name, amid damaging allegations of taxpayers' money being paid to her for work she may not have done.
Emmanuel Macron's first-place poll last Sunday catapulted his wife, Brigitte, into the international headlines. The former teacher, now aged 64 to his 39, and who married her schoolboy pupil, could soon become the modern world's most unlikely first lady.
So far, the French have been more phlegmatic about the couple's age difference, than the international media - an interesting reverse of the 24-year age gap between US President Trump and his wife Melania. In France, the ultra-chic 'femme d'un certain age' has, if anything, enhanced Macron's 'JFK credentials'.
It seems the French may be more taken aback at the prospect of a male 'first gentleman' accompanying a woman president.
Louis Aliot, Marine Le Pen's partner, is also on the campaign trail, playing a latter-day French version of Nick Robinson to Ireland's first woman president, Mary Robinson. Aliot is a Front National vice-president and has been dating Le Pen for eight years. She was previously married twice and has three children.
Of course, the reputation of being a bit of a lad never harmed a French politician. But, more recently, publicity surrounding a politician's private life would also appear to be, at best, a bit of a mixed bag. When the economy struggles, a complex private life, publicly aired, compounds political woes. Just look at the fates of Presidents Sarkozy and Hollande.
In February 2008 the ever-puckish Nicolas Sarkozy married Carla Bruni in a quiet ceremony at the presidential residence, the Elysée Palace. A day later the paparazzi snapped them kissing at a café near the famed Versailles gardens.
Bruni-Sarkozy - 13 years younger than Sarkozy and his third wife - continued her professional work, at that time fronting a lavish TV campaign for the Italian Lancia cars. Within days the president's popularity ratings had bombed as voters believed he had become distracted from his 2007 election promise to become "president of purchasing power" with policies tackling falling incomes and rising living costs.
Sarkozy failed in his re-election bid in May 2012. Now enter the amorous Hollande and his partner of seven years, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler. It was well-known that Hollande was separated from his long-time partner and former presidential contender, Ségolène Royal, with whom he had four children.
But he had been with the Paris Match political journalist since 2005 and declared her "the love of his life" in 2010. There were early tensions through 2012 about conflicts with Trierweiler's continuing journalistic work and her insistence on the title of "Première dame", or first lady. But other tensions persisted - not least about Le President's tangled love life. In early 2014 there were lurid revelations in Closer magazine about trysts with the actress Julie Gayet, aged 41, in a flat just yards from the presidential palace.
Trierweiler spent a week in hospital reportedly suffering from stress. On January 25, 2014, President Hollande, then aged 59, announced in an 18-word statement that he was parting ways with her.
In interviews, Trierweiler spoke of her surprise and dismay. "I heard rumours, of course, but you hear rumours about everyone... When I found out, it was as if I had fallen from a skyscraper,'' she said. The threatened book, Merci pour ce moment (Thank You for This Moment) appeared in September 2014 and sold 500,000 copies within a fortnight. The publishers admitted they had no heavy promotional work to do.
It compounded all Hollande's political woes, mainly a stalled economy and persistently high unemployment. He became the first modern incumbent president not to seek a second term.