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

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

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

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