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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.