Valeriegate: a farce that threatens to undermine Hollande

The row over Valérie Trierweiler's indiscreet tweet threatens the French president's carefully constructed character.

On the face of it, François Hollande has it all. Elected president on 6 May , his Socialist Party gained an absolute majority in last week’s parliamentary elections. The left now control everything. The National Assembly, the Senate, the Regions, the Cantons, the Town Halls, the presidency; everything. This is unprecedented.

What could possibly go wrong? Well something trivial, and seemingly insignificant, has gone very wrong. Yet it could turn out to be one of the most important and problematic events of François Hollande’s presidency.

On Tuesday 12 June – between the two rounds of the parliamentary elections, Hollande’s partner Valérie Trierweiler tweeted (to her 80,000 followers, many of them fellow journalists), her support for the dissident Socialist candidate in the La Rochelle constituency, Olivier Filorni. This indirect attack made a direct hit upon the official Socialist candidate, who, by definition, was backed by the party and, of course, the president. This alone would have been enough to cause a stir. But the official candidate was none other than Ségolène Royal, the former partner of Hollande, and the mother of his four children. The incident exploded in the media, and, in fact, the political and media world has spoken of little else since.

What came rapidly to light was the seemingly obsessive jealousy of Trierweiler in relation to her "rival". Everyone was aware of a kind of glacial formality between the two women, but this incident was like something out of Dallas.

Royal is one of the Socialist Party’s best known figures. The party’s failed presidential candidate in 2007, she supported Hollande in his 2012 campaign, and was rewarded with a (kind of) promise of the Speaker of the House role in the new 2012 Parliament. Her party opponents may have come to terms with her, but her ‘rival’ hadn’t. After ‘the Tweet’ and the hundreds of hours and column inches in the media, it became clear that Trierweiler’s inability to control her hatred of Royal was neurotic at least, and politically dangerous for the President. She lobbied to have Royal’s 2007 contribution to socialism’s 100-year history edited out of Hollande’s campaign video, and seeing Hollande give Ségolène a public, reconciliatory peck on the cheek, strode up to him – in front of the celebrating crowds at Le Bastille on 6 May – and said ‘Kiss me on the mouth’. All of this is as hilarious as it should be insignificant. But, in fact, these almost pedestrian, soap opera incidents have shaken Hollande’s presidency severely. Why?

The contextual reason is that Trierweiler, independent, protective of her own privacy, and seen as the quiet power behind the throne, incessantly stressed her desire to reflect Hollande’s normal presidency and carry on with her job and independence. She did not want to be a ‘potiche’ (a trophy ‘First Lady’). Suddenly, since her tweet, she has certainly proved herself ‘independent’, but somewhat bizarre and politically catastrophic, like Cecilia Albéniz, Sarkozy’s own 2nd wife, who herself wrecked the beginning of his presidency, and then left him. Hollande had been elected to stop all this nonsense, and he spent most of his campaign saying that is exactly what he would do.

Hollande ‘envisioned’ the presidency as the antithesis of Sarkozy’s treatment of it. He would have it ‘normal’, ‘simple’, respectful, and so on – everything that Sarkozy, the hyperpresident, was not. The first of these was to not be involved in everything, so that there would be a decent ‘distance’ between the presidency and its expression. And the core of this notion is the crucial, and traditional distinction between the public and the private. This distinction was stressed again and again by Hollande as a near-moral issue. The more he stressed it, the more sanctimonious he seemed. And then came Valérie’s tweet, throwing all of Hollande’s deliberate depiction of the presidency into relief, and – lethal in France, particularly as regards the presidency – into ridicule.

Above all, the situation undermined his constructed ‘character’, bringing into relief doubts about his resolve – doubts that had existed before he was elected, just as doubts about Sarkozy’s intemperate character before he became president came to haunt him once elected.

Here, in the best French tradition, a wealth of caricatures come in to play. By failing to respond to the situation Hollande seems indecisive. Worse, he is indecisive in the context of two very independent, strong-minded, and difficult women. How can he stand up to Angela Merkel if he can’t stand up to his own girlfriend, the media cries in unison. This plays into long standing rumours of Hollande’s indecisiveness. Royal is reported to have said he could never take any decisions. Another of his rivals, again a woman, Martine Aubry, during the Socialist primaries for the candidacy, referred to Hollande representing the ‘Gauche molle’, the latter word in French full of sexual connotations of impotence. The press constantly references the notion of ‘Vaudeville’– in English it would be translated as ‘farce’.

In the parliamentary elections themselves, Royal did not profit from Trierweiler’s attack, gaining just 37% of the vote. The impact on Hollande could be far greater, his character now permanently vulnerable to indecision. As they say in France, if you want to find the root cause of a problem, Cherchez la Femme – look for the woman.

François Hollande's partner, Valérie Trierweiler (L), and his former partner, Ségolène Royal (R). Photograph: Getty Images.

John Gaffney is the co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe, specialising in French politics and the discourse of leadership.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.