- - Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The French phrase “Cherchez la femme,” which translates roughly as “behind every man’s problems is a woman,” may be outdated and politically incorrect, but it still applies to France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande.

Make that two women.

One is journalist Valerie Trierweiler, Mr. Hollande’s live-in partner at the presidential palace since his election in May; the other is the woman Ms. Trierweiler supplanted in the president’s affections, Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children, and herself a former Socialist presidential candidate.

Insiders have known about the inevitably bitter rivalry between the two women for some time. Now the French public is lapping up details of what the newspaper Le Monde called “an incredible sentimental and political imbroglio” in three new books, with a fourth to come soon.

The public revelations about President Hollande’s domestic complications are a departure from the curtain of discretion that has shielded senior French politicians in the past.

For example: The fact that President Francois Mitterrand had a mistress, Anne Pingeot, remained a secret throughout his political life. And the existence of a daughter from the relationship only emerged publicly when she appeared at his funeral.

One reason for President Nicolas Sarkozy’s failure to win election to a second term was widely believed to be that he had paraded his private life too ostentatiously. Immediately after his election, there was Mr. Sarkozy’s very public divorce from his wife, Cecilia, and then his marriage to the glamorous Italian model Carla Bruni.

Prior to Ms. Bruni, French presidents’ wives had stayed very much in the background. And by contrast with Mr. Sarkozy, Mr. Hollande figured to be a low-key incumbent.

But in this celebrity-driven age the Elysee Palace (the French White House) is finding it hard to put the unwanted attention genie back in the bottle. “I’m for a clear distinction between public and private life,” Mr. Hollande declared firmly in his traditional Bastille Day press conference. But French journalists are having a field day with cherchez la femme.

The first book, “La Favorite” (The Favorite) by Laurent Greilsamer, a former editor of the prestigious daily Le Monde, is a somewhat unflattering portrait of the new first lady — a title, incidentally, she does not like and has invited the public to replace with an alternative. The assertive 47-year-old journalist is portrayed as the opposite of her predecessors, like the wives of Charles de Gaulle and, more recently, President Jacques Chirac, who were hardly seen and still less heard.

The graphically named book “Entre Deux Feux” (Between Two Fires) by two female journalists, Anna Cabana and Anne Rosencher, depicts Mr. Hollande as caught in the crossfire between the two warring women in his life. The first lady is depicted as a paranoid woman with, they write, “a thirst for revenge” against the president’s former partner.

It turns out that Ms. Royal had once used her considerable influence as a senior Socialist Party member to try (unsuccessfully) to get her rival fired from her staff job at Paris Match, the leading French magazine.

After the election, the tables were turned: Ms. Royal was excluded from Mr. Hollande’s swearing-in at the Elysee Palace. And in a tweet that went viral in June, Ms. Trierweiler supported a Socialist candidate who was being challenged by Ms. Royal for a seat in the municipal elections, when Mr. Hollande himself had already supported his former partner.

“The entire nation sank with delight into the bliss of watching the political become personal,” gloated French conservative commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

From all accounts, Ms. Trierweiler remained unrepentant. One unidentified government minister tried to dismiss the incident in the London newspaper the Independent. “The president’s partner detests his ‘ex’ and his ‘ex’ detests his present partner,” the paper quoted him as saying. “What could be more normal than that?”

Meanwhile, two new biographies have unveiled further details of the triangle. “L’Ex,” by Sylvain Courage, is about Ms. Royal, and the title refers to her status as ex-everything: Mr. Hollande’s ex-partner, ex-leader of the Socialist Party, ex-candidate for the presidency. It also emerges that Ms. Royal only learned of the president’s affair with Ms. Trierweiller after it had been going on for some time.

The forthcoming Trierweiller biography by yet another pair of journalists, Christophe Jakubyszyn and Alix Bouilhaguet, is called “Valerie Trierweiller: At the Heart of Power.” The book will be out shortly, and the publisher is promising sensational revelations.

French political commentators say Mr. Hollande’s current domestic problems have ended his political honeymoon. But how to resolve them? It’s said that some of his advisers are suggesting a double solution. Marry Ms. Trierweiller, and give Ms. Royal a cabinet post.

Trouble is, Mr. Hollande has not shown himself to be the marrying kind.

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