Théâtre de boulevard à l’Elysée

Our oh so French president, embroiled in a romantic triangle, is using the right to privacy as a fig leaf to cover his wayward masculinity. Having deftly installed the strong-headed Valérie Trierweiller in the First Lady’s passenger seat without lawful matrimony, he turns the tables on us and we’re supposed to pretend we don’t know. Like innocent children.

What’s behind that fig leaf? It’s the boîte à outils [toolbox] he has been talking about since he was elected to the highest office. We thought he would use it to crank up the economy. Unemployment, crime, and the debt went up; income, investment, and exports went down, his approval ratings plunged to the low 20s but, unbeknownst to voters, the toolbox was devoted to loftier goals… in the arms of a beautiful film star.

Now that the whole world knows about his romantic escapades what is left? His private… his private life. The private life of public figures, he declares, should not be exposed to public scrutiny. Really? International media tittered delightfully over the concept of First Girlfriend…though First Concubine would be more accurate. Yes, le concubinage notoire—living together in full view– still exists as a legal category in France. But First Common-law Wife doesn’t sound very glamorous. And what if le président normal decided to make it un ménage à trois? First Girlfriend and First Chick [copine]? Would it still be his own business and none of ours? Then again, how do we know it’s just a triangle? It could be a hexagon, in the image of la belle France familiarly known as l’hexagone.

If the private life of public figures is no one’s business why are scandal magazines, their paparazzi, and their readers only interested in gossip about high profile public figures? Multitudes of men and women in France cheat on their wives, mistresses, husbands, lovers, sweethearts and fiancés without hitting the front pages.

There is a lot of Gallic shoulder shrugging this week in France, especially on the Left that prides itself on its progressive values. It’s fair to assume that the boys-will-be-boys attitude wouldn’t apply if it were une présidente slipping out on her husband or First Boyfriend to spend torrid nights with a 20 year-old gigolo or a 60 year-old Qatari billionaire … Wouldn’t the public need to know?

We didn’t know, when the newly elected President Hollande proudly introduced his male-female parity cabinet, that the President of Parity was treating his companion like a frumpy bourgeois wife. Now, shocked and humiliated by the revelations, she has taken” get thee to a nunnery” refuge in the hospital. Doctors have reportedly prescribed a 10-day sleeping cure. If Bernadette Chirac had been hospitalized every time her husband had a quick frolic in the gilded hay she would have become a permanent resident of the betrayed and deceived ward. François Mitterand kept his mistress and their daughter in style, on public funds, including the secret service protection that was supposed to be covering his lawful wife. He wiretapped, harassed and threatened journalists who might have revealed the secret they all shared. When President Mitterand’s First Lady, First Mistress, legitimate sons, and out of wedlock daughter walked side by side in the funeral procession, respecting his last wishes, those journalists who had known all along went gushing about how elegant it was to see them joined in mourning. No hard feelings.

This time, too, journalists knew about the president’s trysts. Including, presumably, the fiercely independent Valérie Trierweiller who continued to work at Paris Match when her sweetheart became president. What did she think when he stayed out all night? That he was in the office jiggling his boîte à outils trying to figure out where to put the stimulus and finally get some satisfaction from the economy? A mistress betrayed is doubly wounded. And better equipped than a naïve spouse to recognize the telltale signs of a cheating lover. The Hollande-Trierweiller couple has unashamedly admitted that they kept their liaison secret from 2005 to 2007 when he was living—in concubinage– with Ségolène Royal and their four children.

It’s not really funny. A president doesn’t have the right to drag his nation into this kind of flighty behavior. It makes a mockery of international relations. All those state visits, the protocol, the red carpets and black-tie dinners, the curtseys and baise-mains… under false pretenses. From the Queen of England to the prime minister of anywhere, madame Trierweiller was accepted in a spirit of non-judgmental modernity when in fact she was already being shunted to a supporting role.

In retrospect we realize that it is François Hollande who pushed his private life in the public face. If he wanted to be free to follow his impulses wherever they might lead, he should never have involved his momentary mistress in the affairs of state. Now what? According to rumors wafting out of Valérie Trierweiller’s hospital room, she’s going to give him blow for blow as soon as she recovers, she’s willing to stay on if he publicly and privately says it’s over with Julie, she is devastated because the president has not come even once to visit her… The diagnosis is “extreme nervous tension”– a nervous breakdown.

Yes, it’s true that mores differ from one culture to another but it is wrong to think that French society is indifferent to the issue of integrity raised by the president’s sentimental twists. Social media, I’m told, are dumping on Valérie Trierweiller, who has been widely disliked, but many intelligent opinion-makers are shocked by the brutality of her disgrace, and they don’t blame Closer, the magazine that exposed it.

What’s so modern about the way this unmarried presidential couple went on the rocks? It’s a mixture of bourgeois théâtre de boulevard tainted with lingering contempt for women, and royal court intrigues, with a touch of spicy African polygamy as the co-wives cackle in the media courtyard.

There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen next. Dame Trierweiller could save her honor and her feminist badge by sending a valet to take her belongings from the presidential palace, and retiring to her private apartments. The “I do as I please” president could bring Julie Gayet into the Elysée a week from now, next month, or never. And how will the president maintain his composure if the spurned mistress decides to feed the gossip mill? He can’t tell her that private affairs should not be aired in public!

Beyond the current media flutter and silly statistics, French citizens may well be thinking that if the president put in a better performance in the public sphere they might have more opportunity to enjoy their own private lives.