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French president François Hollande confessed on January 15th, in his first major press conference this year, that he is going through “painful moments” in his personal life after Closer magazine claimed he was having a secret affair with actress Julie Gayet – a claim which turned out to be true. The magazine reported that the hospitalization of Hollande’s current partner at the time, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, soon after the news arose has proved his unfaithfulness.
The uncovering of the infidelity has heaped new pressure on the already unpopular Hollande, who gained the lowest French approval rating on record last year not long after his flagship policy, the 75% tax trap, was ruled unconstitutional. Shortly after the scandalous publication, Hollande issued a statement which did not comment on the question of whether or not he was having an affair but said that he “deeply deplores the attacks on the principle of respect for privacy, to which he, like every citizen, has a right.“ Soon after, Closer took the story down from its website. That same Tuesday, he was asked at a major public appearance whether Trierweiler remains the first lady. In his first comments since the magazine report, Hollande responded: “Everyone in his or her personal life can go through ordeals and that’s the case with us.” Hollande has since split with Valerie Trierweiler.
The latest presidential scandal calls into question whether a complex personal life can be private for someone with round-the-clock bodyguards and with issues of national security at stake for everyone he comes into contact with. This is not to mention the role of “first lady”. The position is clearly an important one to the French public, with Hollande being compelled to name a first lady before his presidential trip to the United States on February 11. He has not commented further on this but the obligation is a given. Even Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni were forced to kiss and make up, or at least regularise their relationship, before a visit by the Pope in 2008.
Firstly, let us remember the job that is now being held to scrutiny over infidelity. He’s not Reverend Hollande, Rabbi Hollande, or Imam Hollande. He is in charge of running a country: a very different job to being a moral role model to the French people. He did not have to swear clerical celibacy on the Bible upon taking the job. Now, that is not to say that his personal errors are immune to criticism. His obvious guilt and angst about the affair leak and now the turmoil of splitting from his partner in disgrace has culminated in a huge ongoing distraction from his important job at hand. No-one can deny he has been irresponsible.
Secondly, we have to remind ourselves that France is another country with another set of laws and another culture. Back in 1998, President Clinton’s affair with Whitehouse intern Monica Lewinsky, then 22, concluded with him being impeached. We can see that this is far from likely in President Hollande’s situation, and that is simply down to a differing perspective on monogamy and fidelity. We see time and again the trouble that comes with the superiority complex of judging another country’s societal values based on our own.
Whilst looking over the whole case, the most riveting aspect that stuck out for me was the nobility and restraint with which his former partner, Ségolène Royale, spoke about the scandal on television, given that she was dumped by Mr Hollande after 30 years of respectable concubinage, leaving four children in favour of the younger woman to be humiliated by this affair. “Time to turn the page,” she said simply. There are more important things to focus on.