Friday 19 January 2018

'It's not the time to discuss my personal life' - Francois Hollande on affair allegations

French President Francois Hollande addresses the media at the Elysee Palace in Paris
French President Francois Hollande addresses the media at the Elysee Palace in Paris
French President Francois Hollande delivers his speech at his annual news conference today at the Elysee Palace in Paris. Photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena
Members of the government, with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, right, listen to French President Francois Hollande delivering his speech at his annual news conference today. Photo: AP Photo/Christophe Ena

French President Francois Hollande today refused to confirm his relationship status.

When asked if French First Lady Valerie Trierweiler was still the 'First Lady of France' by a journalist, Mr Hollande said he would not be drawn on private matters.

The reporter added that France would be welcoming the Obamas as part of a State visit in a matter of weeks, and enquired whether they would be meeting Barack and Michelle Obama as a couple, following the allegations in France's Closer magazine that he is in a relationship with Julie Gayet.

"I have one principle which is that private matters are dealt with in a respectful and intimate manner," Mr Hollande said at the conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris today.

"It's not the time, nor the place to do so.

"But if I don't answer any questions on a particular subject matter today, I will do so before the meeting you refer to."

Today's press conference was his first public speech since the affair allegations were made earlier this month.

Ms Trierweiler was hospitalised after a magazine report that Hollande is having an affair with an actress. Trierweiler may remain in the hospital for six to eight dys to recover from the "very strong emotional shock", her chief of staff has said.

Hollande is a lifelong bachelor, though he has four children with former presidential candidate Segolene Royal. He and Trierweiler have lived together since 2007, and while they are not married, Trierweiler occupies the so-called "madame wing" of the presidential palace, travels abroad with Hollande and functions as the first lady.

The press conference was originally planned as a big policy affair designed to tackle pressing economic problems, however it was overshadowed by personal troubles so sensational that even the famously blase French could not gnore them.

The French public initially shrugged off talk about the secret affair as Hollande's private business. But pollsters said yesterday that Trierweiler's hospitalisation renders the scandal more serious, and is likely to damage Hollande's already-record-low popularity ratings.

"Today, we have a victim, in the person of Valerie. This could create growing empathy for Valerie and hurt the image of Hollande, who could be perceived as the cause of Valerie's unhappiness," said Yves-Marie Cann of the CSA polling agency. "And that could weigh on the image that Hollande has had of someone nice and honest."

Patrice Biancone, chief of staff to Trierweiler, vigorously denied Internet rumors that she had attempted suicide, and said she simply needs rest. Asked about her plans, he said: "When you are in a situation like this, you can't think about tomorrow, you can't think with lucidity."

That puts even more pressure on Hollande to come out with a forceful new economic policy when he faces the New Year's news conference.

While the French often say they do not care about their leaders' private lives, readers quickly cleared out kiosks of the magazine Closer when it published images last week of what it said was a helmeted Hollande secretly visiting actress Julie Gayet.

Hollande threatened legal action over what he said was an invasion of his private life, and Gayet has not commented publicly.

French voters are "intrigued and interested, but don't want this to distract him from the real problems of jobs, the deficit," said Emmanuel Riviere of the TNS-Sofres polling agency.

Many French want Hollande to clarify who his first lady is - and then to get back to the business of fixing the flagging economy.

The role of first lady in France is not as important as its American counterpart, but "retains an importance in the collective imagination of the French people" because she is seen as "France's image to the world", said Cann.

Commentators have questioned what this scandal means for the first lady's agenda when Hollande visits the US next month.

French history is rich with romantic scandals at the pinnacle of power, from royal concubines to Napoleon's passion for Josephine to former President Francois Mitterrand's long-secret daughter.

A tumultuous love life is one of the few things Hollande, a low-key Socialist, has in common with his flashy predecessor, conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, who divorced in office and remarried model Carla Bruni.

Sarkozy's popularity tanked as his romance with Bruni blossomed. But Sarkozy was much more popular than Hollande to begin with, so had farther to fall. Hollande "already has a rating that is so low, it can't go much lower", Cann said.

Jean-Daniel Levy of Harris Interactive polling agency said that while French voters do not necessarily expect their leaders to be loyal husbands, the reported secret affair could feed the impression that Hollande is indecisive.

Riviere questioned whether he's using public funds to pay for bodyguards hiding his affair. What voters "want to know is what he is spending energy on. Is he managing his double life instead of managing the country?".


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