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

©HOLBURNE MUSEUM. THE FITZWILLIAM MUSEUM, CAMBRIDGE.
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A sketchy legacy? How Pieter's sons kept Brand Bruegel going

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s.

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

It is partly to unknot this family tree that the Holburne Museum is running “Bruegel: Defining a Dynasty”, a small but choice exhibition of about thirty pictures that show the distinctiveness of the leading family members. What makes the ­early-generation Bruegels worth looking at in detail is that each was significant in a different way.

The geographer Abraham Ortelius wrote of Pieter the Elder: “That he was the most perfect painter of his age, no one – unless jealous, envious or ignorant of his art – could ever deny.” For all the earthiness of his peasant subjects and their rural pastimes, he was collected by the richest of Antwerp’s merchants, by the Spanish governor general of the Netherlands, Archduke Ernst, and by the Holy Roman emperor himself, Rudolf II in Prague. His patrons recognised that he was no mere Hieronymus Bosch derivative but a highly innovative artist (candlelit interiors, snow scenes, landscapes) whose depictions of human folly mixed the comedic with the serious, but nevertheless contained the belief that wisdom and virtue were the means for redemption.

When Bruegel died, his two sons were trained in painting by their maternal grandmother, Mayken Verhulst, an accomplished miniaturist in her own right, and came of age at a time of Bruegel mania, when there just weren’t enough of their father’s pictures left to go round. There are only three Bruegel the Elders in the whole of Britain, and the National Gallery has lent its Adoration of the Kings (1564) to the show, the first time in a century it has left Trafalgar Square.

Pieter the Younger set out to milk the market and painted large quantities of copies of his father’s most popular works by using the original preparatory cartoons – scale drawings with holes pricked around the figures, which, when dusted with charcoal, would transfer the outlines to a panel beneath. The resulting pictures were very saleable Bruegels by Brueghel: he painted 45 versions of his father’s Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap, 25 of The Peasant Lawyer, and 31 of the 100 existing versions of the riotous Wedding Dance in the Open Air. There’s a lot of Pieter the Younger about.

For all his business acumen, Pieter the Younger was no original and his skill was weedy compared to the robustness of his father’s. It was the second son, Jan “Velvet” Brueghel, who was an artistic pioneer. Nature was his topic and although he, too, repurposed his father’s peasant scenes in his work, as in A Flemish Fair (1600), he shrank the goings-on to make them merely an incident within a diaphanous landscape, rather than the main subject.

Jan painted works of great refinement in oil on copper rather than wood, and also developed the genre of pictures of vases of flowers of kaleidoscopic colour that then became such a popular strand of 17th-century Dutch art. He also frequently worked with collaborators, usually figure painters such as Rubens (who was godfather to at least one of his children), realising that a joint Brueghel-Rubens painting was worth more than one by himself alone.

To add to the mix, one of Jan’s daughters, Anna, married the Golden Age genre painter David Teniers, while another, Paschasia, married into the van Kessel family – their offspring becoming popular for their miniature paintings of insects and plants.

What emerges from this tangled genealogy is that though talent ran in the family, it did so unevenly: Pieter the Younger was a pretty competent painter, Jan a good one, but Pieter the Elder had a genius his descen­dants never got close to matching.

Runs until 4 June. More details: holburne.org

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times