PARIS -- French President Francois Hollande is expected to use his traditional new year’s news conference Tuesday to announce reforms to kick-start the country’s economy, combat widespread unemployment and boost his lamentable popularity with the public.
However, the event risks being hijacked by a very different affair of state that is dominating French headlines: the president’s alleged trysts with an actress.
Hollande’s personal and political woes began Friday when a celebrity magazine published a seven-page “special report” complete with photographs of the president, 59, crossing Paris on the back of a scooter, apparently to rendezvous with 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet.
The photos in Closer magazine were said to show the president being taken to an apartment in Paris’ chic 8th arrondissement, where he allegedly stayed the night. Other photos show the president’s bodyguard delivering croissants the following morning.
Hollande’s administration moved into crisis-management mode, with the president threatening legal action for breach of privacy but not denying reports of the affair. However, hours after the revelations Friday, Hollande’s partner, Valerie Trierweiler, was taken to a hospital, suffering what friends told journalists was a “severe bout of the blues.”
The scandal took another unexpected turn Monday with claims that the apartment used for the president’s alleged secret meetings with Gayet was linked to the Corsican mafia.
The French investigative website Mediapart reported that Gayet had been lent the apartment by a friend whose ex-husband was convicted of money laundering in November and that the friend’s boyfriend was shot to death in May in a suspected gangland killing. [Link in French]
Neither of the men had lived at the property, but the connection raised fears about Hollande’s security. [Link in French]
Hollande would not be the first French president to indulge in affairs. His Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, a married man, led a double life with a mistress and daughter for more than 20 years. Mitterrand’s secret “second family,” known to a handful of journalists who maintained a self-imposed silence, came to light shortly before his death of prostate cancer in 1996.
According to a poll published Sunday, 77% of French voters surveyed thought the president’s love life was nobody’s business but his own, and 84% said it would not change their opinion of Hollande, who is deeply unpopular.
Meanwhile, Hollande has received support from across the political spectrum. Even bitter rival Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front, said she did not care to know about his private life “as long as it did not cost the taxpayer a centime.”
Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the center-right Union for a Popular Movement, criticized Hollande for exposing the presidential office to ridicule and questioned his judgment.
“You only have to read the international press. When they talk about France at the moment, it is either about this affair or about Dieudonne" M’bala M’bala, a comedian convicted of anti-Semitic hate speech, Cope told French radio station France Inter.
He said the Closer revelations should act as a “lesson in humility” for Hollande.
As well as the political implications, there were concerns about Trierweiler, who had been expected to be allowed home Monday but remained hospitalized for what her office at the Elysee Palace told Reuters news agency would be “an indefinite period."
“The doctors say she needs more rest, and they will decide when she will be able to leave,” a spokesperson was quoted as saying. “She needs time to recover after the shock she has suffered. She needs some peace.”
Friends told Le Parisien newspaper that news of the affair had “hit her like a TGV [the nation’s high-speed train] hitting the buffers.” They added that she wanted to save the relationship but needed Hollande to “clarify his intentions.” [Link in French]
Willsher is a special correspondent.