Weary of the flashy antics of Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni, the French opted for François Hollande as their next president. But the man who campaigned as “Monsieur Normal” has been trapped between two women in a twisted 20-year psychodrama. With one tweet, the scandal exploded.
Not since French president Nicolas Sarkozy and supermodel and former Mick Jagger girlfriend Carla Bruni announced their relationship at Euro Disney had the French witnessed something so alarming involving the occupants of the Palais de l’Élysée, home and office of the president of France. On June 12, just one month after François Hollande had been installed as the new president of France (succeeding Sarkozy), his stunning magazine-writer girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, took to her Twitter account in a towering rage against Ségolène Royal, Hollande’s former partner and the mother of his four children. The words of the tweet sounded innocuous—a message of support for Royal’s opponent in a legislative race—but the meaning was clear. Something was seriously dysfunctional in what Hollande had promised would be Boring Land.
Hollande, after all, was supposed to be the “normal” one, the one who wasn’t a crazed pervert like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or a louche, yacht-hopping modelizer like Sarkozy. Sure, he had once upon a time been with Royal, had a family with her, and had fallen in love with Trierweiler, but this was France, after all. Nothing to bat an eyelash at. Suddenly Hollande’s carefully tended, oh-so-evolved image was blown apart by his girlfriend. Soon, the newspaper headlines about him could have graced any given cover of the Enquirer. the poison of jealousy and secrets of a trio from hell, hissed L’Express and Marianne.
Far from idle gossip, what has emerged is a twisted 20-year-long psychodrama, involving professional rivalry, betrayal, blackmail, revenge, and politics at the highest levels. Hollande is being cast by the press as a weak-willed cipher, a man who has let himself be pushed and pulled by two impulsive, egocentric women, one driven by ambition (Royal), the other by paranoia and jealousy (Trierweiler). The damage to his image couldn’t have come at a worse time—as he faces the Eurozone crisis, zero economic growth, double-digit unemployment, and an unprecedented pessimism permeating the country. As Marine Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front Party, bluntly puts it, “How can he have any authority over his country while he has absolutely none with his ex-girlfriend or his current girlfriend?” Though by all accounts Hollande is decent and hardworking, Le Pen’s sentiment is shared by Frenchmen from cabdrivers to academics.
Paris Is Burning
It’s a sad irony that Hollande’s personal life may be his downfall, for in the beginning he tended the public image of it so carefully. In the late 1980s, Hollande and Royal were the bright, young First Couple of the Socialist Party. They met and fell in love at the École Nationale d’Administration, the elite breeding ground for France’s politicians, including Presidents Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Traditionally, French politicians had put a decorous distance between their personal lives and the public—and the French press has generally respected the division. But Royal and Hollande broke that taboo, presenting themselves as the very picture of left-wing modernity—attractive and unmarried with a growing brood. “The model [for them as a couple] was Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir,” says Sylvain Courage, an editor in chief of Le Nouvel Observateur and author of a new book on Royal, L’Ex. In a move unheard of at the time, they invited Paris Match into their apartment on the Rue de Rennes in the Sixth Arrondissement. In one picture, Royal is contentedly feeding baby Julien, while Hollande is on the floor, doing puzzles with their toddler, Clémence. In another, Royal and Hollande are standing in front of the National Assembly, clutching matching briefcases. They were the couple that had it all, the young Bill and Hillary Clinton of France.
But is it possible for a couple to live forever in harmony when they ultimately share a single, albeit unspoken, goal—the presidency of France? Beneath the surface of domestic bliss, a rivalry was simmering. Though Hollande graduated higher in his class than she, Royal was on the fast track to political stardom. In 1982, at the age of 29, she was recruited into President François Mitterrand’s government as a junior adviser. By 1988 she had been elected deputy in the National Assembly. Four years later, she was a government minister. Hollande had to satisfy himself with the less glamorous role of a deputy in the National Assembly representing Corrèze, a forgotten region of farmers and jam-makers. He was the congressman from nowhere, she the political rock star, and the power differential rankled him. “Friends were always saying that François Hollande was so much more talented and so much smarter than she,” says Ali Baddou, a political anchor at Canal Plus who is well acquainted with Hollande’s circle. According to Trierweiler, Hollande has admitted to being envious of Royal in the early years. His ambitions were not so secretly churning. Jacques Rupnik, a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques, recalls his shock a few years ago when he and Pierre Moscovici (now the minister of finance) were discussing the people who intended to run in the Socialist Party in 2012. “He mentioned Hollande, and I said, ‘You cannot be serious. He hasn’t even started thinking about it.’ He replied, ‘Of course I’m serious! He’s been thinking about it nonstop for the last 30 years.’”
In Hollande’s quest for the presidency, a certain woman would come into his life who would prove very useful: one Valérie Trierweiler, a young, drop-dead-gorgeous reporter from Paris Match who had been assigned to cover the Socialists. Her talent was seen by other journalists as unremarkable. “She was not very curious,” recalls Thomas Legrand, columnist at the radio station France Inter and Paris Match, who worked with her in the pool of political reporters in the late 80s. But her icy, Hitchcock-heroine looks were useful currency. Legrand recalls that the mention of Trierweiler’s presence at a proposed lunch with a busy politician would have the magical effect of freeing up his schedule. “[The response] was always ‘Oh, I’ll check my schedule … Yes!’”
For a young reporter on the Socialist beat, Hollande and Royal were, naturally, the couple to know. Trierweiler successfully courted and charmed them; they dined with her and her fiancé, Denis, an editor at Paris Match, whom she would marry in 1995. Hollande was only too happy to make himself a source to this fetching young fan. Royal, it seems, fell for her as hard as Hollande did. In 1992, for the birth of her fourth child, Flora, Royal invited Trierweiler into the maternity ward for an interview, a plum assignment for its novelty.
Throughout the late 90s, Hollande and Trierweiler, who now had her own expanding family, grew closer; at the same time, the power was shifting between him and Royal. Royal, having alienated many of the established names of the Socialist Party with her ambition and confidence, was given a position she perceived as a demotion— junior minister of school education. Meanwhile, Hollande’s stature rose, and in 1997 he became the leader of the Socialist Party.
He had his own challenges, to be sure. While competent and affable, he struggled with a reputation for being a softy with wobbly views; he earned the nickname “Flanby,” after the mushy dessert flan. (It didn’t help that he was chubby.) Legrand recalls a joke that went around at the time about his malleability. “If one guy tells him it’s six a.m., and another guy said, ‘No, it’s six p.m.,’ he’d say, ‘Let’s say six. We all agree that it’s six.’”
But to Trierweiler, Hollande, with his intellect and dry sense of humor, was a star, and it was only a matter of time before the world knew it. He invited Trierweiler, in her capacity as reporter, to follow him on trips at home and abroad, where she would report on his talent. It was intoxicating to him. “We all knew Hollande was fascinated by her,” says a Paris Match colleague. Soon, rumors of an affair emerged. In 2003, Royal reportedly called Trierweiler into her office and confronted her, saying, “You have three children. I have four. Be very careful.” Royal contacted several higher-ups at Paris Match to warn of the inappropriate relationship and to demand that Trierweiler be taken off the Socialist beat. (Trierweiler denied the affair, but eventually she was reassigned.) Royal did her best to reel Hollande back in, asking him on television to marry her, to which he replied with an uncomfortable laugh, “I’ll let you know after the show.”
Despite the rumors of an affair, Trierweiler went on to use her professional perch to celebrate Hollande and tarnish Royal, becoming, no doubt, Hollande’s mouthpiece on his companion’s shortcomings. In an article from April 2004, for example, Trierweiler wrote about the early days, when Royal was a minister and Hollande a mere rural deputy: “The star is decidedly her, but it is he who trains Ségolène in her ideological choices.” He was superior as a parent as well, Trierweiler reported. Royal, she wrote, “sometimes stayed away for more than ten days at a time without returning to the house.” Hollande, by contrast, “has returned more than once from a meeting on the other side of the country at 2 a.m. only to return before 7 a.m., so as to not disappoint the children.”
The lovers were rumored to have found a safe place to rendezvous at the home of Olivier Falorni—the very man whom Royal would run against and whom Trierweiler would support via her notorious tweet. Brazenly taunting her cuckolded rival, she continued, “Ségolène knows to take out her claws if she has to. She warns women who get close to François Hollande and reacts at the slightest attack on her man.”
In anticipation of the 2007 presidential election, Hollande’s special friend wasted no time in anointing him, in Paris Match—“One day in December, François Hollande became presidential”—while portraying Royal as irrelevant and pathetic: “[Royal] comes more and more often to [Socialist Party headquarters], attends meetings she wasn’t invited to, and annoys certain members of the Socialist Party.” Lest Royal herself got any big ideas about running for president, Trierweiler wrote that Royal would never succeed “without the support of François Hollande. . . . The maker of the king or queen, it is him. Unless he decides to keep the crown for his own head.”
But Royal had Hollande checkmated—by the secret affair—and she insisted it was her turn to run for president. As Courage explains, if Hollande tried to become the Socialist candidate, she warned, his affair would be exposed, and his chances would be destroyed. Yes, this was France, but a presidential candidate sleeping with the woman who has been covering him so favorably in the press? It didn’t look good. Hollande and Royal’s eldest son, Thomas, by then in his 20s, was aware of his father’s indiscretion and sided with his mother. Hollande had no choice but to make a deal. He would step aside and let Royal have her shot. They would keep up appearances of being a couple, and Hollande would eagerly support her—even as he kept seeing Trierweiler.
There was only one problem: Hollande felt that Royal had hijacked a role that should have been his. “François Hollande was castrated by Ségolène Royal,” says an observer. He supported Royal in the primary only officially and did little behind the scenes for her as she ran against the more established Socialist politicians, International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and former culture minister Jack Lang. “I campaigned strongly and on a daily basis for Ségolène Royal,” says the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy, who has served as an unofficial adviser to many French politicians. “And I have a weakness for loneliness and solitude. She received nearly no help, if not worse, from the party.” Her campaign manager, Arnaud Moutebourg, couldn’t hide his frustration. He said publicly, “Royal has only one flaw—her partner.”
Proving to be an enterprising and dynamic candidate, Royal used the absence of party support to her advantage. Characterizing herself as a “gazelle among the elephants,” she made her gender a key selling point. She traveled throughout France talking about participatory democracy and urging supporters to join the party, so that they—and not just party members and leaders (i.e., Hollande)—could have a voice in the primary. Suddenly, the Socialist Party doubled its membership; lo and behold, she won the nomination. “The way she built her campaign was to completely outsmart the political machine,” says Jacques Rupnik. Beating Sarkozy in the general election was another matter. She lost her cool in debates with him, and a number of gaffes pointed to her limited understanding of international affairs.
Following her defeat, Royal blamed Hollande and the party, saying, “Every morning I would open the newspapers and ask myself which Socialist was going to attack me.” With Sarkozy now in office, there was no point keeping up the charade that she and Hollande were together. Royal issued a statement announcing that she and Hollande had split. He and Trierweiler, in the middle of divorce proceedings from her husband, moved into an apartment in the 15th Arrondissement. The French public was cool with it all, hardly raising an eyebrow at the glaring conflict of interest that had just been revealed in the Hollande-Trierweiler pairing. Royal returned to her now relatively small-potatoes job as president of the region of Poitou-Charentes.
Four years later, Sarkozy was turning out to be a failure, due to general revulsion at his hyperkinetic, flashy personal style. With the election of 2012 ahead, Hollande and Royal, no longer hamstrung by the need to keep up appearances, squared off against each other in the Socialist primary. Both were determined to take back what they’d been robbed of by the other. Royal pulled no punches. “Can the French people name a single thing [Hollande] has achieved in 30 years of politics?” she asked during the race. But Royal, unable to shake her losing performance in 2007, was running close to last. Hollande was behind Strauss-Kahn. As fate would have it, Strauss-Kahn was caught in his own monstrous drama—he was accused of having committed rape in the Sofitel hotel in New York, and left the race in disgrace. (The criminal charges have since been dismissed.) The vast majority of his supporters went with Hollande. Voilà. Now was his moment to prove what Trierweiler had known all along—that he had what it took.
Together, Hollande and Trierweiler refined the theme of Monsieur Normal, which she had been pushing seven years earlier in Paris Match. Hollande made his ordinariness versus Sarkozy’s bling-bling the cornerstone of his campaign. The French appreciated it. “[Hollande] eats. He likes the country. He likes the food. He likes being in the café with friends,” says Legrand. Whereas once upon a time Hollande had opened the doors onto his private life with Royal, he now targeted Sarkozy’s gross display of his personal life. “I respect private life, and the private life of the president,” he told the radio station Europel during the campaign. “But I don’t think it needs to be exhibited.” The message resonated. Who didn’t miss the more dignified era of 30 years ago, when President Mitterrand could have an entirely secret second family, and the press wouldn’t touch it, simply out of respect? Hollande specifically criticized the omnipresence of Carla Bruni, telling journalists, “Carla is no longer an asset for Sarkozy. She annoys me more than him. I saw her wiping his brow and neck in front of the cameras, in the Antilles. She infantilizes him.”
The fact that he and Trierweiler were unmarried—which would make him the first unmarried president in French history were he to win—fit into the “normal” narrative. It made them just like millions of other French couples. Sure, he had a past with Royal, but they spun it as ancient history and condescendingly pooh-poohed the idea that this should be of interest to anyone. “Yes, the man I love had a woman before me,” wrote Trierweiler. “It happens to be that she was a presidential candidate.” The press gave them the benefit of the doubt.
Behind the scenes of the campaign, however, Trierweiler, though still working as a journalist, gave herself a role far more disruptive than Bruni’s brow wiping. Hollande and Royal had made a deal: She would throw her support behind him in the presidential election. Should he win, he would name her the head of the National Assembly if she could win a deputy seat in the next legislative election. It was a delicate peace treaty, to be sure, and Trierweiler did what she could to botch it up by aggressively trying to erase all traces of Royal from Hollande’s biography.
At the Socialist Party convention, in Le Bourget, in January of this year, some 20,000 supporters and 450 journalists gathered for the presentation of the candidate. Over the course of three hours celebrating Hollande and the Socialist Party, in speeches and film footage, the name Ségolène Royal was not mentioned once. Royal later complained to Hollande, “You can’t act as if my 2007 campaign didn’t exist. Your team is giving you very bad advice. They want to bury me. If you erase me from the picture, it’s going to turn against you.” Two months later, his campaign manager, Manuel Valls, now the minister of the interior, said that Trierweiler, with whom he was close, had made him exclude Royal. “I wore the hat,” he admitted. At another campaign event, in Rennes, Royal made a speech praising Hollande and formally passing her supporters over to him. She had been told that Hollande would join her onstage. But Valls prevented that bit of stagecraft, and Hollande appeared only momentarily. At the insistence of Trierweiler, Royal was also reportedly excluded from the funeral of Hollande’s mother—her children’s grandmother—and the inauguration itself.
Trierweiler was relentless—even in victory. It was Election Night. Laurent Binet, who followed Hollande for several months for his book Rien Ne Se Passe Comme Prévu (Nothing Happens as Predicted), relays how Hollande, Trierweiler, and a few of his inner circle were on the campaign plane and had just learned of his victory. It was a moment that might have been filled with unbridled joy and optimism for some. Trierweiler, however, was thinking about something else, and she put to the group the following question: “At this great moment of accomplishment, which person does it feel like a personal revenge against?” She didn’t provide an answer, but it’s not hard to guess who was on her mind.
“It was an interesting question and a strange question,” admits Binet, who had been handpicked by Trierweiler for the job. “It says something about her.” Hours later, onstage during the Election Night celebration, when Hollande gave Royal a celebratory peck on the cheek, Trierweiler couldn’t stop the words from coming out of her mouth: “Kiss me on the lips!” He dutifully obliged. The cringe-inducing moment was caught by all the cameras.
‘We tried to give [the normal thing] a chance,” says Anne Rosencher, reporter for the political weekly Marianne and co-author of the new book Entre Deux Feux (Between Two Fires). “But, in fact, the warnings were there,” warnings that Trierweiler was seriously out of whack with reality and capable of thinking or uttering the most grandiose, deluded notions. Once safely ensconced at the Élysée Palace, for example, she said she ought not to be called “First Lady of France,” but, rather, “the First Journalist of France.” In a review she wrote about a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, she compared herself to the famous First Lady.
But, still, no one quite imagined that Trierweiler could undermine Hollande’s presidency. Alas, Royal had unfinished business—that post of head of the National Assembly she had been promised by Hollande if she could win the local election for deputy. Her choice of locale—La Rochelle, a beautiful port she assumed was a safe seat on the left—couldn’t have been more provocative to him. The city already had its own Socialist contender: none other than Olivier Falorni, Hollande’s old friend and supporter who was rumored to have let him and Trierweiler hide out in his home when their affair was secret.
For Trierweiler, the thought of Royal becoming head of the National Assembly was hideous enough—that would put her in daily contact with Hollande. Now Royal, “the crazy woman from Poitou-Charentes,” as Trierweiler once called her, had the gall to go up against Hollande’s old friend? Royal expected nothing less than for Hollande to clear the decks for her and force his old ally out of the race. She considered herself a shoo-in and was already calling herself the next head of the National Assembly. Hollande responded to the problem by sending a colleague, Bruno Le Roux, to propose to Royal that she run, instead, to represent French citizens living abroad. She declined. He sent another colleague, Stéphane Le Foll, to urge Falorni to get out of the race. He declined.
Royal, seeing that the race was closer than expected, was getting desperate. If Hollande couldn’t get rid of Falorni, the least he could do was give her his endorsement. She dug in on the matter, telling him how imperative his support was. Thomas followed that up, telling his father how miserable his mother was. The next morning, from her office at the Élysée, Trierweiler heard the news on the radio—it was Royal herself announcing that she had just gotten Hollande’s support. A friend who was present shared with Le Point journalist Anna Cabana (co-author of Entre Deux Feux) what happened next. Trierweiler flew into a rage and called Hollande at the office, where he was in a meeting: “You supported her without telling me. Behind my back! … You will see what I’m capable of!”
Minutes later, the message of the tweet was reverberating throughout France. Valérie Trierweiler to Ségolène Royal: Drop Dead. We have a problem, Hollande’s advisers told him as he concluded his meeting. “She’s been irresponsible.”
Dommage à Trois
Hollande tried to sweep the matter under the rug and get on with business, but the mess wrought by Trierweiler made him look like a weakling. As one close observer explains, “French people can accept a man who is between two women under one condition: that it is clear he’s the master, that he pulls the strings.”
Fairly or unfairly, Hollande’s every move has been clouded. As a public gesture to demonstrate how normal he and his companion were, for example, he and Trierweiler traveled to Brégançon for their August holiday by train, not plane, and smiled for the cameras. A fine gesture, but given recent events, it looked like an embarrassing charade. His approval ratings have plummeted in less than half the time it took Sarkozy’s to fall. As he looks to come up with 30 billion euros to lower the budget deficit, the frustration is coming from both sides of the political spectrum. The right is incensed at his proposed new taxes, including a 75 percent income tax for those making above one million euros. Coincidentally, or not, Bernard Arnault, the richest man in France, has just announced that he has applied for Belgian citizenship. (He claims he will continue to pay taxes in France.) The left, learning of the austerity measures Hollande accepted from German chancellor Angela Merkel, feels betrayed as well. Here he was again, telling one side one thing, another side something totally different, and folding under pressure, again, to a woman. As a result of his policies, many on the left feel he’s as bad as Sarkozy, while those on the right want Sarkozy back. Indeed, there have been rumors that Sarkozy is waiting until the state of affairs hits rock bottom so he can swoop in as France’s only recourse in 2017, and recent polls suggest he would win if the election were held today.
For now, due to the damage done to his image, Hollande is France’s whipping boy. A recent editorial in Le Point by respected columnist Philippe Tesson summed up the perception of his performance: “Hollande, le Fiasco Total.” The personal mess, says a well-placed source, “is the main origin, the main reason, for the recent fall, the disgrace.”
As for Trierweiler, Royal may have been the intended victim of the tweet, but she brought far more damage upon herself. She solidified the hatred of Hollande’s children, who vowed to have little to do with her. Thomas told a journalist at Le Point, “It pained me for my father. … It destroyed the ‘normal’ image he had built.” Hollande, belatedly realizing that his companion has become an epic liability, has effectively banished her from important public appearances. Some suspect that she won’t be around for much longer. As one insider suggests, it’s a good thing she didn’t quit her day job. Trierweiler recently said she regretted sending the tweet, but according to Sylvain Courage, who has been in touch with her recently, she’s not exactly doing much hand-wringing. “She feels guilty,” he says, “but not that much.”
Ironically, all Trierweiler has done is give her sworn enemy a boost. Royal lost the race to Falorni, but Trierweiler’s tweet played zero part in the defeat; as it turned out, right-wingers came out for Falorni only so that they could see Royal go down. But now Royal gets to be the victim—legitimately—of Trierweiler’s vindictiveness. “La Rochelle,” she recently told Le Figaro, “it was an injustice. A crash. I didn’t deserve that . . . to be subject to a humiliation like that, from so many angles. . . . It’s violent. It’s violent for my children. I have to be strong for them. But it’s a double shock.”
Royal has earned the sympathy of the French people, who feel she’s owed it. In what must be an unpleasant turn of events for Hollande, his girlfriend may be the one who gives Royal another chance.