It has been a week when the British news has been dominated – to an extraordinary degree – by the seamier side of sex: from multiple rape in Peterborough, to child pornography ordered live from the Philippines. Against this background, revelations about the nocturnal goings-on in Paris – the motorbike, the crash helmet, the croissants – seem only to underline the difference between the two sides of the Channel.
Here, it is all sordid exploitative stuff. There, it is harmless fun that is to be treated as part of the warp and weft of normal life. And when the President of France says he wants a bit of time to sort out his personal life, he is given it, and the media turns respectfully back to matters economic.
I wonder, though, whether the difference is not being exaggerated, by us as much as by them. When it was announced that Valérie Trierweiler, France’s “first lady” for the past 18 months, was in hospital, where she has been now for the best part of a week, the atmosphere changed.
Or it should have done. Because, while it might seem to us that the French are enjoying huge amounts of adult fun, that fun comes with a cost, which is borne most often by the woman. François Hollande’s refusal to clarify Trierweiler’s status and his diminution of the position of “first lady” as derived only from custom and practice might have left Valérie with some questions. Had she not, after all, given up most of her journalist’s job to accompany him to the Elysée? What kind of recognition was this?
Hollande, it has been observed, has form with the ladies and a record of reluctance to commit. He fathered four children with his partner, Ségolène Royal, before leaving her for Trierweiler seven years ago. Valérie’s unpopularity in France – for replacing Ségolène, for social ineptitude, for tasteless tweets – should blind no one to the indignity of her present position, or to Ségolène’s before. We Brits, who delight in the suave allure and impeccable manners of the French male, should not ignore the reality: that in relationships, especially unmarried relationships, those same seducers hold almost all the cards.
In France, more admiration than social censure attaches to the man who plays around – and the more gorgeous the new female on his arm, the greater tends to be the cachet. Rarely mentioned is the damage his inconstancy leaves behind. Spurned wives, partners and mistresses, not to speak of the children, suffer mostly in silence. Nicolas Sarkozy’s ex-wife, Cécilia, was an exception.
Danielle Mitterrand stayed with a husband who was two-timing her with a whole other family, but some of what she went through showed on her face. To all appearances a very traditional wife, Bernadette Chirac surprised many with an autobiography that spoke sometimes bitterly about her husband’s behaviour. Glamorous affairs were rumoured, but neither admitted nor proved.
It is no secret, of course, that the alpha male traits that go to make presidents – and not just in France – may predispose them to philandering. As Hillary said of Bill, she knew early on that he was “a hard dog to keep on the porch” – although this did not diminish the hurt.
Yet there is one feature of political life, as it is lived pretty much throughout the Western world, that surely doubles the humiliation when things go wrong. This is the position of “first lady”. And, paradoxically, the demand for a figurehead hostess seems only to have grown as more women have embarked on careers and non-married and same-sex relationships are increasingly accepted.
There is no reason at all why a national leader should be expected to have a spouse or partner always on public duty. Edward Heath managed to be prime minister as a single man; Norma Major stayed mostly at the family home; Denis Thatcher (like Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer) was a discreet presence who might or might not accompany his wife. But then there was Cherie.
Blame for much of the cult of first-lady probably lies across the Atlantic, with JFK and Camelot. But no sooner had Hillary Clinton just about persuaded Americans that she should be exempt from the “cookie-baking”, then along comes Michelle Obama, to play the part of “first lady” as well as it has ever been played – and set back any prospect of change.
In Paris, Valérie Trierweiler might have done better to exploit her non-married status, to have said No to having her own Elysée staff, and to have turned up with François as and when. The current confusion illustrates how much, institutionally and socially, is in flux. Trierweiler may be the injured party here, but her big mistake, as a modern and independent woman, was to accept the outdated role of “first lady”.