François Hollande, the man who wooed the French with the promise to be a “normal” president, has decided to break rules and conventions in the name of normality.
In a break from his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who never travelled by rail while in office, Mr Hollande has announced that he will make official journeys within France, and to European summits in Brussels, by train. He has also decided, for time being at least, to continue living in his flat in a run-of-the-mill Parisian apartment block near the Eiffel Tower.
But in attempting to keep his campaign promise to be “normal” president who remains in touch with the people, the new President is flouting conventions and advice from security chiefs – and even a 60 year old law.
According to the legislation passed in the early 1950s, a gendarme or police officer must stand beside every bridge en route when a president of the republic travels by train. Last year, the head of the French state railways, Guillaume Pepy, cited this law as the reason why President Sarkozy had never travelled by train while in power.
With an average of two bridges per kilometre, a presidential journey from, say, Paris to Lyon, would require 900 police officers to be deployed at intervals along the high speed line between the two cities. "Nicolas Sarkozy has asked to travel by train but it would require an extraordinary mobilisation of police manpower," Mr Pepy said last July.
How, then, did President Hollande, accompanied by the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, manage to travel on a scheduled high speed train from Paris to Brussels for the EU informal summit last Wednesday? Both SNCF, France’s state-owned rail company, and the Elysée Palace declined to answer questions from The Independent directly. Both said that the president’s security arrangements were "confidential".
The Independent understands, however, that President Hollande has given instructions for the 60 year old "policeman-by-every-bridge" law to be ignored until it can be quietly removed from the statute book. Although special security arrangements were made for Mr Hollande and Mr Rajoy, there was not a policeman or gendarme beside every bridge between the Gare du Nord and the Belgian Border (220 kilometres). "The president has the ultimate say over his own security arrangements," a source told The Independent. "If he wants to travel by train, he can."
The Elysee Palace put the cost of the train trip for Mr Hollande and his entourage at €5,972, including the seven cars which brought them home to Paris in the early hours. An Elysee source told The Independent that this "included all security arrangements". The cost of travelling to Brussels in two presidential executive jets, as President Sarkzoy did, is estimated as ten times higher – €60,000.
At the same time, Mr Hollande has, for the time being, rejected advice from security chiefs and decided not to live in the Elysee Palace. He returns home each evening to the flat in the unfashionable 15th arrondissement which he shares with his partner Valerie (acute on first e) Trierweiler and her three teenaged sons.
Because the flat has windows on the street, security chiefs regard it as a security risk. They have also pointed out that the presence of the head of state could cause disturbance for President Hollande’s neighbours. Mr Hollande, however, has decided to test this advice rather than accept it. "So long as there is no problem for the neighbours and for security, we will stay," he is reported to have told friends.
A presidential aide told the newspaper Le Figaro: "He would rather cause problems for his security staff than (lose touch with) ordinary people".
For the time being at least, Mr Hollande’s "Mosieur Normal" act – and his frenetic first two weeks’ in office - have gone down well with French voters. An IFOP poll put his popularity rating at 61 per cent, the third highest for any newly-elected president in half a century.