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

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism