Well, whatever about the French press, for British papers, the Hollande affair is the gift that keeps on giving. Apparently shored up in the presidential residence in Versailles, Valerie Trierweiler was, it seems, visited by the president on Thursday night, though the visit does not seem to have clarified her situation. It is said that the pair will meet again today. In the blizzard of briefing and counter-briefing that both sides are engaged in, you can either take it that Francois Hollande needs more time to decide what to do about his relationships or that it’s curtains for Valerie. Meanwhile, her uncle Florent Massonneau has said: ‘I think the fact my niece is being cuckolded is disgraceful. Her situation gives us a lot of pain.’ Which is all very understandable until you reflect that since the president and Ms Trierweiler are not in fact married she can’t, technically, be cuckolded. What she can be is humiliated.
There’s been a lot written about the quasi royal status of the French presidency: compare and contrast with Britain, an actual kingdom whose press have a far less deferential attitude either to their head of state or their head of government. Certainly what comes to mind here is the old monarchical concept of the king’s favourite; the mistress who is in favour at any one time. And that’s pretty well the status of the president’s women just now; Ms Trierweiler is not married to the president and her situation, not to mention her perks, is contingent on how the president feels about her. But in the ancien regime, the king also had a wife whose position was anything but ambiguous: the current confusion over this situation is partly to do with the modern concept of partner, which is our attempt to blur the distinction between a girlfriend/wife; lover/spouse.
This is a mess, not merely because of Mr Hollande’s alleged libidinousness, but because of his eschewing marriage, or marital commitment, in the first place. Segolene Royal, mother of his four children, was plainly what we used to call his common law wife. If Mr Hollande had managed to contain his affair with Valerie Trierweiler within the limits that French politicians normally manage, she would be First Lady now, and the situation in respect of other women would be a good deal clearer.
The title of First Lady confers on the president’s companion a status which is intelligible if the woman in question is the president’s wife, but becomes meaningless if it is a lover who may at any time be replaced. Mr Hollande may have been correct if ungallant in saying in his press conference that the position of First Lady is fluid (though the state funded perks that go with it are concrete); all that means is that the First Lady should be whichever woman he happens to want to be with at any one time. Dunno what feminists make of this, but it’s an odd position for a modern woman to be in.
In this week’s Spectator, I suggested that the Hollande affair made the case for mistresses, a situation without the privileges of marriage but with the charm of non-commitment. What I could equally and more sincerely have said is that the affair reinforces the case for marriage: a legal status in which everyone knows where they are, and which the machinery of the presidency is equipped to handle. Investing Valerie Trierweiler with the title of First Lady wasn’t enough to make a partner into a wife. And this wretched business – which shows our uxorious politicians in rather a good light – makes a mockery of our willingness to pretend there’s no real difference between the two roles.
PS: President Hollande’s disapproval ratings now stand at 77 per cent. Yet, quite undaunted by his unpopularity, he is proposing to legalise medically assisted suicide. Which means that this divisive president is going to be responsible for the two of the biggest revolutions in social legislation – the other being gay marriage – in recent decades. Pity the French parliamentary elections don’t take place mid-term; the electorate’s verdict on his performance just now would have interesting results.