Forbidden fruit: Trierweiler and Hollande in 2002, three years before "the kiss in Limoges". Photo: Paris Match/Getty Images
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It started with a kiss: Valerie Trierweiler’s memoir

Jane Shilling finds a blend of syrup and venom in this kiss-and-tell book by François Hollande’s former partner. 

Thank You for This Moment 
Valérie Trierweiler; translated by Clémence Sebag
Biteback, 298pp, £18.99

Among the candidates competing to stand in the 2012 French presidential election François Hollande had two distinct advantages: he wasn’t the right-wing incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, with his eventful marital history and high-maintenance pop-star third wife, Carla Bruni. And he wasn’t Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Hollande’s rival for the Socialist candidacy until his campaign was inconveniently interrupted by his arrest in New York on a charge of attempted rape (subsequently dismissed, but not before all sorts of lurid allegations had emerged).

By contrast with these two flamboyant figures, Hollande was the most unobtrusive of high-fliers: a graduate of the elite French civil-service academy, Éna, he looked, with his receding hairline, ill-fitting suits and rimless specs, like a blamelessly dull provincial accountant.

His private life seemed blameless, too. For over 30 years he had shared his life and raised four children with his partner, the beautiful and ambitious Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election. After the high-octane tohu-bohu of Sarko and Strauss-Kahn, Hollande must have looked deliciously dull. But that was before Valérie Trierweiler entered the Élysée Palace.

Trierweiler’s kiss-and-tell-memoir of her nine-year relationship with Hollande, which ended abruptly this January when it emerged that the French president was having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet, sold almost half a million copies in the month after its publication in France. Though positively reticent by Anglo-Saxon standards (there are, mercifully, no Tony Blair-style revelations of bedroom action) it is still explosive stuff in a nation where the extramarital shenanigans of politicians such as François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac were common knowledge, but discreetly hidden in plain sight.

But Trierweiler has a notorious tendency to speak her mind – never more than in the “Tweetgate” affair of 2012, when she caused a scandal by tweeting her support for the man standing against Hollande’s former partner, Royal, for an MP’s seat.

In her memoir, she blames her outspoken­ness on her working-class background. She was born Valérie Massonneau in Angers in 1965, the fifth child of a disabled father and a mother who bore six children by the age of 20. Trierweiler studied at the University of Nanterre and the Sorbonne, and at a party held to celebrate Mitterrand’s victory in the 1988 election, the then president’s roving eye fell on the pretty 23-year-old.

“I believe we have met,” Mitterrand said. They hadn’t, but by convoluted means the exchange led to her landing a job on the influential weekly Paris-Match. “François Mitterrand had impacted my fate . . .” she writes. “How could I have imagined that one day I would be with another president?

How indeed? At Paris-Match Valérie got to know a fellow journalist, Denis Trierweiler. “Even before we were in a relationship, I had dreamt he would be the father of my children.” Dispensing with her first husband, Franck Thurieau, who barely gets a mention in the memoirs, she set about living the dream: “I had no other plans than to build both my personal life and my career – François Hollande was not part of either of these plans. I even changed my surname . . . I wanted to show that I belonged to my husband.”

Despite this wifely devotion, by 2000 the rumours that she was having an affair with Hollande were strong enough to trouble Royal, who confronted Trierweiler and Hollande as they were enjoying a discreet lunch. “Caught red-handed. I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” she hissed, according to Trierweiler, who replied that they were discussing the Tour de France. “My aplomb,” Trierweiler notes, “irritated and impressed her in equal measures.”

Hollande apparently used to tease Trierweiler about her humble origins by calling her Cosette, after the guileless waif in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and throughout her memoir she presents herself as a bewildered provincial innocent, propelled by unsought-for love into a cruelly sophisticated world of political manipulation. Although she was frequently in contact with Hollande in the early 2000s, “I was not yet aware of the electromagnetic field that sparked between the two of us as soon as we were together.”

When it happened, it was apparently all Royal’s fault: “The intervention of a woman who feared our love above all else no doubt played a part in it becoming a possibility in my eyes.”

After that it all gets a bit complicated. The chronology of her book zips bafflingly back and forth between the aftermath of her brutally curt dismissal as First Girlfriend and the brief flowering and melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of her affair, which finally achieved lift-off with The Kiss in Limoges on Thursday 14 April 2005 (“That date will always mean something to me”).

She had accompanied Hollande on a business trip to Limoges, after which he asked her to join him at a meeting in Tulle. She refused: “I knew what ‘come to Tulle with me’ meant.” Instead, over a modest dinner of waffles and a crêpe, “We spoke about our relationship for the first time . . . What passed between us in that moment is indescribable, it was like a scene from a film. A kiss like no other kiss I’d ever shared with anyone.”

The upshot was, as she coyly puts it, that “François did not drive back to Tulle that evening”. Alas, “the kiss in Limoges was the starting point of a downward spiral”. First Royal decided to stand as a presidential candidate, insisting that Hollande support her campaign. When she lost, she chucked him out. “I can easily imagine,” Trierweiler muses, “that during that period François behaved with Royal as he did with me during his affair with Julie Gayet – which is to say that he was the king of doublespeak, ambiguity and perpetual lies.”

At last it was Hollande’s turn to run for the presidency. After his election in 2012, Trierweiler became – depending whether you believe her version or the spiteful gossip of the Élysée aides and journalists who unaccountably took to briefing against her – either his rock or a millstone around his political neck.

Certainly she had an unerring knack for a gaffe. Among many lulus, the one that stands out is the moment at his post-election celebrations when Hollande kissed Royal and Trierweiler jealously demanded that he kiss her, too, “on the mouth”. The eagle-eyed press lip-read, identified the words, and gleefully published them.

Trierweiler complains that, as president, Hollande became a different man from the one with whom she fell “crazy in love”. Before taking high office, he was tender, funny, a lover who “knew how to waste time”. Afterwards, she claims, he became a chilly, duplicitous, tyrannical rotter who said nasty things about disabled people and the poor, calling them les sans dents, or “the toothless”, and blamed her for everything, especially his lack of popularity.

“Everything I have written in this book is true,” she asserts, claiming that she was deliberately drugged to stop her from turning up at a presidential event in Tulle shortly after the break-up. Since then she has divided her time between good works, fending off the president’s pleas for forgiveness (he texts her up to 20 times a day, she claims) and composing this memoir with its inimitable blend of syrup and venom.

Rambling, self-justificatory and lachry­mose, it reads like a transcript of one of those drunken post-break-up conversations you have with your best friend late at night, and wish you hadn’t in the morning. Then again, it has made Trierweiler extremely rich and compounded Hollande’s political travails by making him appear not just cold and duplicitous, but ridiculous.

Halfway through a five-year term beset with scandal and failure, with unemployment rising and his approval ratings at a record low, the last thing Hollande needed was this most unflattering of intimate portraits, in which he appears as a cross between Iago and Mr Bean. Largely untroubled by infidelity, the French electorate may prove to be less forgiving of pusillanimity when it comes to the presidential elections in 2017. 

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books: The Fox in the Cupboard and The Stranger in the Mirror, a memoir of middle age, published in 2011. She writes on books for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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