If Closer magazine is to be believed, François Hollande has finally become the “normal” President he said he’d be in his election campaign.
Mr Hollande said he was considering taking legal action after the French version of the magazine published seven pages yesterday alleging he was having an affair with Julie Gayet, a 41-year-old actress.
The Elysée Palace did not specifically deny the allegations but said that Mr Hollande might sue the magazine for breaching France’s strict laws on privacy.
Despite seven pages of pictures, Closer produced no absolute proof that a man in a black motorcycle helmet seen entering Ms Gayet’s apartment block on New Year’s Day, and photographed again leaving by scooter the next morning, was Mr Hollande.
The magazine said the President could be recognised from “his shoes”. It also claimed that a second man seen arriving and leaving with the visitor was an Elysée security officer. The second man is seen arriving in the morning with what Closer claims is a “bag of croissants”.
If the story is true – and the consensus among France’s mainstream media yesterday was to accept Closer’s version of events – Mr Hollande is following a long tradition.
His mentor, the late Socialist President François Mitterrand, had an official mistress and several girlfriends during his 14 years in office. President Jacques Chirac’s frequent philandering was acknowledged by his wife Bernadette in her autobiography in 2002. In another book, Mr Chirac’s chauffeur revealed that his boss’s nickname was “four minutes, shower included”.
What was different about yesterday’s story was that it was published a few days after the alleged event in a more-or-less mainstream magazine. Despite the strict French privacy laws, glossy magazines frequently carry tittle-tattle on French actors and television personalities. Senior politicians have traditionally been off-limits.
There has been a gradual erosion of these barriers in recent years as the mainstream media finds itself having to react to information – accurate or otherwise – posted on the internet. Yesterday’s invasion of presidential “privacy” by Closer marked a new stage in the “Anglo-Saxonistion” of the French media.
The Elysée said: “François Hollande greatly deplores the invasion of his privacy, to which he has a right as any other citizen does. He is study- ing what action, including legal action, to take following this publication.”
In a statement yesterday, Closer said that at the request of Ms Gayet’s lawyer it would remove all reference to the alleged relationship from its website, but there was no mention pulling the publication from newsstands.
Unconfirmed rumours of an affair between Mr Hollande, 59, and Ms Gayet have been circulating in Paris for months. The actress is currently appearing as a vampish diplomat in a comic film about the French foreign ministry, Quai d’Orsay. She is also dubbing into French the voice of Nicole Kidman in the Hollywood movie about Princess Grace of Monaco which is due to appear this Spring.
Mr Hollande, who has been president for 20 months, has never been married. He is in an unmarried relationship with the former journalist, Valérie Trierweiler, 49, who performs the duties of “Première Dame or First Lady".
The President has four grown-up children from his previous common law marriage over two decades with another Socialist politician, Ségolène Royal.
Closer said that its “astonishing photographs… pose questions about the security of the President”.
“The Head of State is accompanied by a solitary bodyguard who protects the secrecy surrounding these encounters with an actress and even brings them croissants.”
Fears about the president’s safety are unlikely to top the list of public reactions to Closer’s story. Socialist politicians, speaking off the record yesterday, said that it could further damage the president’s popularity, already at the lowest level of any French leader for half a century.
“What angered people about (former President Nicolas) Sarkozy was that his presidency seemed to be all about him and his private life. With people suffering and his government struggling, Hollande can’t afford to be seen to be part of the bling-bling world of film actresses,” one Socialist parliamentarian said.
An adviser at the Elysée Palace told Le Figaro that the revelation might disrupt the important announcements which Mr Hollande is expected to make on new market-driven economic policies at a press conference next Tuesday.
“I don’t see how it can fail to have an impact on how the President’s comments are received. It’s the last thing we needed. That’s life,” the official said.
Reactions posted by readers on the Le Monde website ranged from anger against Mr Hollande to fury with the lèse-majesté of Closer magazine.
“Attila” wrote: “France is on the way to the same level of media debate on politics as in England, where the Murdoch gutter press makes and breaks elections.”
“Juliette” commented dryly: “Now Valerie T is in the same boat as everyone who voted for FH.”