Saturday 25 January 2020

Are the French really ready for President Comb-Over?

Gemma O’Doherty

In France, they call him 'Monsieur Normal'. Francois Hollande, the low-key politician who is tipped to become the country's first Socialist president in 24 years, takes great pride in being Mr Ordinary, a man of the people who has no interest in the trappings of power and will rid the Elysee Palace of the bling associated with the Sarkozy years.

It will be out with the Ray Bans, the perma-tans and the celebrity callers and in with a much blander style of presidency from a plain-living politician who spends weekends at his local market, does the housekeeping and rides to work by scooter.

It is a type of leadership which holds huge appeal among the French electorate, who have grown weary of Nicolas Sarkozy's glitzy soap-opera lifestyle.

As the conservative incumbent struggles to avoid becoming France's first one-term president in more than 30 years, there is widespread distaste for the glamour that has epitomised his term in office.

In recent weeks, he and his supermodel wife Carla Bruni have been at pains to dismiss opposition claims that theirs is a 'Presidency of the Rich'.

"We are modest folk," said the French first lady recently after her husband was grilled about his now infamous election victory celebration held in an upmarket Champs Elysees restaurant 'Fouquet's', a word that has come to symbolise the president's apparent love of the good things in life.

Bruni, who is called Marie Antoinette by some sections of the French press for the lavish lifestyle she is said to enjoy, faced an avalanche of ridicule after her comments.

But while his Italian-born wife is accused of nurturing Sarkozy's flashy style, including his penchant for high heels, some say that she is actually the one who has tried to tone it down and teach him class.

Stories abound that she warned him to drop his chunky Rolex for a more discreet Patek Phillippe and advised him against jogging in public after it became clear that the French were turned off by the sight of their president sweating.

Bruni once famously said her husband was so intelligent that he had 'five or six brains' but she is the one who turned him off his obsession with cheap pop and Elvis impersonators and on to Nietzsche, Sartre and Proust.

In a country famed for its sombre, aloof presidents, her smiling, affable character has made the office more accessible and modern. But there have been serious blips along the way, which have helped to seal her standing in the polls as one of France's most hated people.

There was consternation when she used the roof-top of the Elysee Palace for a commercial photoshoot to promote her new album and mortification when she brought in a personal trainer to tone up her and her husband's private parts.

The pop singer, who became Sarkozy's third wife after a whirlwind romance in 2008, is known for maintaining a near-empty official diary and staying in her own townhouse rather than at the Elysee Palace in the French capital.

Should Francois Hollande hold onto his lead and win the election on May 6, the woman who will replace Bruni as first lady has vowed to remain firmly in the shadows of political life.

Journalist Valerie Trierweiler, a feisty divorcee who met her boyfriend Hollande while covering a story for the glossy magazine Paris Match, is said to dread the prospect of losing her liberty and being thrown into the public limelight.

When her former magazine ran a feature about her romance with Hollande, she lambasted it for reducing her to a trophy political companion.

Critics of the president-in-waiting, who wants to rid Europe of austerity by stimulating growth, claim that he has no experience as an international statesman (the highest political position he has held is mayor) and lacks Sarkozy's charisma.

Trierweiler, a mother of three, is determined to prove them wrong and is said to be the driving force behind Hollande's recent makeover, sharpening his suits, tightening his waistline and darkening his unfortunate comb-over hair.

The pair have been together since 2005, but kept their affair private until after the 2007 presidential elections so as not to damage the chances of Socialist candidate Segolane Royal -- Hollande's then partner and the mother of his four children.

Yet despite her claim that she prefers to stay on the sidelines, Trierweiler has an office at Hollande's campaign headquarters and rings in several times a day for briefings.

Friends describe her as "punchy, no-nonsense, and smart" and an ardent feminist. She once slapped a male colleague for making a sexist comment.

The Elysee Palace might soon be bling-free, but it could well have another premiere dame to be reckoned with.

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