Au revoir to France’s culture of discretion

In seeking to settle accounts with her ex-lover, has Valerie Trierweiler also damaged French democra

Valerie Trierweiler's book entitled 'Merci pour ce Moment' (Thanks for the Moment) highlights her life with French President Francois Hollande [EPA]

France’s ex-First Lady Valerie Trierweiler couldn’t have wished for a more shocking debut in literature. Merci Pour Ce Moment (Thanks for the Moment), her memoirs of her relationship with French President Francois Hollande, including her 18 months at the Elysees Palace, is the first kiss-and-tell story of this kind ever to be published in France. This alone is a remarkable fact, especially in a country famous the world over for its courtesans, from Madame de Pompadour to Marguerite Stenheil, known for being in the arms of French President Felix Faure at the Elysees Palace when he died of a heart attack in 1899.

For the past three centuries, libertine literature and French novels in general may have addressed the topic in various ways, but it has always been as fiction, not as eye-witness reportage as Trierweiler’s book startlingly claims to be on its cover page.

The French philosopher Diderot’s first novel in 1748, the libertine Bijoux Indiscrets (Indiscreet Jewels) imagined that Louis XV had secret powers over women… This was an erotic yet critical pamphlet, against the French Court of Versailles. Much more recently, in 1984, the grande dame of the French press, Francoise Giroud, published Le Bon Plaisir, the story of a French president and his much younger mistress and their daughter, which was then made into a film with Catherine Deneuve. Many people knew her model was Francois Mitterrand, but it was never touched upon in interviews or in the reviews. The public at large remained oblivious until Francois Mitterrand himself decided to go public about his second family in 1994, a year before his departure from politics, at 79 and terminally ill with cancer.

The Mitterand model

Mitterrand-Hollande: the two socialist presidents offer a striking contrast in how they dealt with their private lives in the public eye. Mitterrand benefited from a completely different culture, one of deference to the institutions or anyone elected to represent them. Imperious, Mitterrand got the French taxpayers to pay for the lodging and protection of his second family, and kept indiscreet reporters at bay with a blend of natural authority and charm.

During a press conference, he was asked to comment on the presumed existence of his natural daughter, he replied with a huff: “Et alors?” (So what?). And that was the end of it. He alone decided how, when and where he’d announce to his compatriots the existence of his daughter Mazarine whom he fathered with his mistress Anne Pingeot. Paris Match was chosen by the president to break the story, as Le Monde journalists Ariane Chemin and Geraldine Catalano explain in Une Famille au Secret, an investigation published 10 years after Mitterrand’s death.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s antics with his second wife Cecilia, and then his third wife Carla Bruni, and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal have changed France and its culture of discretion. And there is no turning back, whether we deplore it or welcome it.

Fast forward to President Francois Hollande who probably, and naively, thought that Mitterrand’s spirit would protect him from the paparazzi. It is a political mistake on his part to imagine that France could turn back the clock.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s antics with his second wife Cecilia, and then his third wife Carla Bruni, and the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal have changed France and its culture of discretion. And there is no turning back, whether we deplore it or welcome it.

France now has a very popular celebrity press, courtesy of German and British media groups. Voici, Closer, and veteran Paris Match, will not treat politicians, the president included, differently from other celebrities. Nobody in France is now above scrutiny and voyeurism.

The traditional respect for politicians’ institutional roles seems to have completely dissipated. It is remarkable to see that Hollande has had no control on how his fling with actress Julie Gayet played out on the covers of every single newspaper in the world back in January.

It is even more astonishing that Hollande discovered that his ex-girlfriend had written her memoirs at the same time as we did. He had no idea, and neither did we.

Scorn for the poor

This fact is probably even more devastating politically than what Trierweiler divulges of his alleged scorn for the poor.  According to her, Hollande once talked derisively of modest people calling them “the toothless”. She describes him as cold, distant, cynical, drunk on power, and cut off from reality. Many commentators pointed out that perhaps this was more revealing of the author’s inferiority complex and the nature of their intimacy than of the president’s true character.

The book may be selling extremely well, 15,000 were sold in the first hours of its release, better than Fifty Shades of Grey at its French launch, yet many French people take the book as it is: a bitter and vengeful attack rather than an impartial reportage. Even so, the damage it’s doing to the president, as a man, and as an institution, should not been minimised. This book is a bombshell.

Never before have we, the French public, been privy to intimate scenes taking place in the bathroom of the Elysees Palace and the very bedroom of our president. With the latest polls showing Hollande stuck with a staggeringly low approval rating of 13 percent, respect for the president is in freefall.

Trierweiler wanted to settle accounts with her ex-lover, and she certainly scored on this point, but in the process, she also damaged French democracy.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of ‘Touche, A French woman’s take on the English’