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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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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