Valérie Trierweiler’s biggest mistake was to accept the outdated role of ‘first lady’

Paradoxically, the demand for a figurehead hostess seems only to have grown

Share

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.

François Hollande with partner Valérie Trierweiler; Julie Gayet François Hollande with partner Valérie Trierweiler; Julie Gayet

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”.

Proud to be a secondary power

If there is anything more predictable, and wearying, than the doom-laden forecasts about the end of the UK-US “special relationship”, it is the insistence that this same relationship is in fine fettle. We heard both versions, when the former US defence secretary, Robert Gates, told the BBC that cuts in Britain’s defences had reduced its ability to be a full partner, and David Cameron retorted that he was wrong.

Gates, who is promoting his memoirs, expressed particular concern about the UK’s current lack of an aircraft carrier. This is hardly news. The Navy never stops complaining about it; they will be happy to have a new ally. At one point there was talk of sharing, or perhaps renting space on, the Charles de Gaulle, but it has not happened. Disagreement might be one explanation; lack of need might be another.

With UK troops now out of Iraq, soon to be out of Afghanistan, and not going to Syria, this country has no reason whatever to plan for great power status. Why we still seem to see the prime purpose of our military as helping US forward projection, rather than the defence of UK national security or Europe’s western flank, beats me. All being well, the next battle we will fight will be the political one over the future of Trident.

US defence secretaries, former and current, should know better than to feed Britain’s imperial nostalgia. It only perpetuates illusions in London and Washington and gives succour to a British top brass that has been heedless of expense for too long. The UK should live, and fight, within its means. By restructuring and cutting numbers, this is what Cameron and co are trying to do. They should not have to pretend otherwise in the vain hope of keeping the Pentagon sweet.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Report Analyst (SSRS, CA, SQL 2012)

£30000 - £38500 Per Annum + 25 days holiday, pension, subsidised restaurant: C...

Application Support Analyst (SQL, Incident Management, SLAs)

£34000 - £37000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Embedded Software / Firmware Engineer

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Pension, Holiday, Flexi-time: Progressive Recruitm...

Developer - WinForms, C#

£280 - £320 per day: Progressive Recruitment: C#, WinForms, Desktop Developmen...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Russian President Vladimir Putin 'hits his foes where it hurts'  

Dominic Raab: If Western politicians’ vested interests protect Putin, take punishment out of their hands

Dominic Raab
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform