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.