France has exploded with self-righteous rage at Ms Trierweiler’s claim that a Socialist President, who once said that he “hated the rich”, jokingly refers to the poor in private as “les sans dents” – “people without teeth”.
Since the publication of the former First Lady’s book, the internet has been alight with outrage and mockery, some but not all stoked by pressure groups of the hard right and the hard left. A demonstration by a group of self-declared “sans-dents”, claiming to be the descendants of the “sans-culottes” (the trouserless ones) of the French Revolution, assembled outside the Elysée Palace last night.
One political commentator said the phrase proved that President Hollande, who comes from a relatively rich provincial family, was not just a snob but a “social racist”. More soberly, Le Monde pointed out that one in three French people cannot afford to see a dentist.
The publication on Thursday of the “secret” book written by the dumped First Lady, has brought Mr Hollande’s accident-prone presidency to a new low. The book has zoomed to the top of the best-seller charts, selling five times faster on its first day than the French language version of Fifty Shades of Grey.
Mr Hollande said on Friday that he was committed to “the weakest, the most humble, the poorest.” He called it his “raison d’être”.
“I will never accept... that the commitment of a lifetime may be put into question,” Mr Hollande told reporters at a Nato summit in Newport.
A poll published today – taken before the book was published – showed Mr Hollande’s approval ratings had sunk to 13 per cent. This is not just a new record but a depth unexplored since France switched to a presidential system just over 50 years ago. Ms Trierweiler’s book, which presents the President as a cruel and calculating snob, is likely to damage him further.
As if that was not enough, Mr Hollande was forced on Thursday to sack a junior trade minister appointed 11 days ago as part of a reshuffle intended to “clarify” his administration. Thomas Thévenoud, asked to resign because of late payment of taxes, had previously been vice-chairman of an investigation into “fiscal fraud”.
Mr Hollande’s five-year presidency will reach its half-way point in November. Political commentators asked yesterday whether he was now so deeply unpopular that he can no longer govern France.
No previous president of the Fifth Republic (since 1958) has suffered such a profound collapse in trust and respect.
Mr Hollande’s alleged joke about the “sans-dents” – although dismissed as untrue by colleagues – is especially damaging. It appears to support claims made by critics on the left, and the far right, that the President’s new, tax-cutting, reformist economic policies are an attack on the poor and a “give-away “ to the wealthy. A left-wing group calling itself “NousLesSansDents” (“We the Toothless Ones”) said yesterday: “The jobless are stigmatised; workers are mistreated. Now the poor are insulted… Together we can bite back.”
A right-wing group called “Hollande dégage (Hollande out) tweeted: “On 21 January 1793, (the day Louis XVI was guillotined) there were the sans-culottes. In 2014 there are the sans-dents. Careful not to lose your head François.”
Valérie Trierweiler, 49, was dumped as Mr Hollande’s unmarried partner in January after it emerged that he was having an affair with the actress, Julie Gayet. In her book, Merci pour ce moment (“Thanks for this brief time together”), the former First Lady paints Mr Hollande as a cold and mendacious man – and worst of all an elitist.
Ms Trierweiler comes from a poor background in rural France. Mr Hollande is the son of a very rich (and very right-wing) doctor from Rouen in Normandy.
She says that Mr Hollande nicknamed her “Cosette” – after the orphaned street urchin adopted by a wealthy man in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. She says that he once mocked her extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts as “not very pretty”.
She went on: “He likes to present himself as a man who does not like the rich. Actually, the President does not like the poor. He, the man of the left, calls them in private the toothless ones. He is very proud of this joke.”
This brief aside has attracted far more commentary than the much longer passages describing Mr Hollande’s alleged evasions about his infidelity and describing Ms Trierweiler’s attempt to take an overdose of sleeping pills when news of the Gayet affair broke.
Mr Hollande’s friends and colleagues – including his former partner, Ségolène Royal, dumped in 2007 in favour of Ms Trierweiler – have leaped to his defence.
Ms Royal told a radio interviewer: “All this stuff about François Hollande and the toothless ones. Do you believe a word of it? It makes no sense. It is the opposite of what he has always believed in.”
The problem is that Mr Hollande is known for his little private jokes. Whether or not the “sans-dents” line was invented, it will stick to him like a tattoo. Marie Antoinette, stubborn historians insist, never said of the starving poor (or sans-culottes): “Let them eat cake”. That did not save her from the guillotine.