Presidential ex Valérie Trierweiler tells Carolyn Boyd what it is like to be a female at the centre of French politics and her hopes for the role of First Lady of France
It may not be the French way of doing things, but the taboo-breaking, kiss-and-tell book written by the President’s ex, Valérie Trierweiler, has done more than simply exact revenge on an unfaithful partner. Instead, her book about her time at the Élysée Palace has raised important questions about the role of the First Lady and, perhaps more fundamentally, the role of women in French politics. As well as offering an exposé on her nine-year relationship with François Hollande, Trierweiler also accuses French male politicians of blocking talented women from having their say.
“I’ll tell you what it is that prevents women from becoming President, it is the male politicians,” Trierweiler told FRANCE Magazine at an interview in London. “I don’t think it is the voters – the French will be ready for a female President long before the male politicians are.”
During her 18 months living at the Élysée Palace, she observed “a very macho world” where female politicians were routinely ignored by their male counterparts. “I attended meetings where, whenever a female politician opened her mouth, the men would turn their heads away and stop listening,” she says.
As a political writer and observer for more than 20 years, does she think – given the misogyny she perceives in French politics – that a woman could become President of the Fifth Republic? It’s her assessment that, given the opportunity, a number of candidates could be more than capable; someone such as Martine Aubry, the socialist mayor of Lille. Yet she dismisses current front-runner Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National on the basis of her political extremism, not her gender. “I don’t think the French are willing to vote for a Front National candidate,” she says, with a look of distaste. “There are women on the right such as Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet who are on track for a solid career. She is a strong politician. She has already had successes; a few failures too, but those are needed in politics if you’re going to grow.”
However, the role at the heart of the Élysée that most preoccupies Trierweiler is that of First Lady, which she details in her book amid the emotional tale of her relationship with Hollande.
Given her experience there, she is anxious to see a reform of the unofficial role, which has been notoriously hard on its incumbents. While Carla Bruni (Nicolas Sarkozy’s third wife) fought to maintain her career as a singer and actress alongside her commitments as First Lady – indeed some may argue she used it purposely to enhance her profile – Trierweiler’s occupation as a political journalist at Paris Match led to many conflicts of interest once her partner took office as President. As a result, she made a compromise and changed her job to become the magazine’s literary critic, but this didn’t help her to escape vilification from the media. It was also constantly questioned as to whether she was entitled to be known as ‘First Lady’ at all, given that the couple weren’t married.
She believes the fundamental problem is its ambiguous status: “The problem is that it’s not an official role,” she says. “Either we get rid of it or we develop and support it. Every First Lady gets criticised during their time in office. I was criticised even more for not being married, and I was even accused of diverting public money, even though I had half the number of assistants as Carla Bruni – who herself had half the number of people that Bernadette Chirac had – and expenses which were lower still. Claude Pompidou decorated some of Élysée rooms just to keep busy.”
While Yvonne de Gaulle may have been a mother figure to the nation – dignified, poised, instinctively conservative, even trying to persuade her husband to ban the mini-skirt – subsequent First Ladies have, in general, not had a happy time. Bernadette Chirac, who in 1998 was denied the privilege of watching France win the football World Cup from the presidential box at the stadium, famously said: “The president is a widower. I am nobody.” She dealt her own cutting snub two days later when she refused to attend a garden party for the victorious French football team, saying: “As I wasn’t there to see them, I won’t be there to receive them.”
Trierweiler confirms the trouble she and her predecessors had encountered: “Bernadette Chirac used to give orders to everyone and eventually even her aides wanted her to go,” she says. “Cécilia Sarkozy [the President’s second wife] couldn’t stand it and she left immediately. And Carla Bruni told me that she couldn’t stand it either. She only ever used her office at the Élysée three times. She told me that herself,” she says.
The role may not be official, it is difficult to avoid becoming embroiled in its functions and maintain a relationship with the President. Trierweiler agrees that it is a thankless task: “So you give all your time for this voluntary work and then you constantly get criticised,” she says.
Trierweiler does admit it is hard for the French public, and even the media, to see the palace’s incumbents in any way other than glamorous.
“The Élysée does have that magical air about it, to people it seems like [we have] such a beautiful life filled with luxurious things and wonderful meetings. Yes, you do have some good times, but at the same time it is like being inside a gilded cage.”
Among the few ‘wonderful’ meetings described in the book, Trierweiler describes her encounter with Michelle Obama with much admiration and believes she is the most inspirational contemporary First Lady.
“I am grateful for having met her, you immediately feel her warmth and character,” she says. “She had a successful career as a lawyer, one which went further than her husband’s, and she gave up a lot. I find her a real female politician.”
And indeed she is: the First Lady of the United States is an official role, with its own office and salary – something that is lacking in France. “I can say this because it wouldn’t benefit me any more, but why not offer a reasonable salary for the First Lady?”
While the political machinations and the vilification by the media made the role difficult, Trierweiler embraced its humanitarian aspect; something she has continued to do since leaving.
“What I appreciated particularly during my time at the Élysée was discovering the associations and the associative network, which are very strong in France,” she says. “For example, the Secours Populaire has between 70,000 and 80,000 volunteers. It’s huge. I don’t know what France would be like today if it wasn’t for all these associations which help the poor. Do you know how many meals these associations serve in France? 500 million a year; 500 million! Considering that most are served over the winter months, do you see how many that is a day?”
As well as being involved in various associations that help the poor and disabled, she is also proud of having campaigned to help a number of French families adopt children from Mali, in west Africa. “There were 70 families who had obtained permission to adopt a child. Mali then reversed this decision,” she says. “Can you imagine the pain for those families? They were told they would have a child, and then they don’t.” After three years of discussions and working closely with the wife of the President of Mali, Trierweiler campaigned for this decision to be overturned, hearing that she had succeeded just an hour before our interview.
“I am happy that I contributed to this, because my two years at the Élysée would not have been in vain,” she says.
Having been summarily dismissed from the officially non-existent role, and her career in political journalism also over, what now for Trierweiler? Is she tempted to enter politics herself? “No, not at all,” she says pointedly. “What interests me now is helping these associations. Maybe this is a way of doing politics differently,” she shrugs. “Because what is politics after all? I can be active as a citizen. I don’t need to seek election, that doesn’t interest me at all.”
With the controversy surrounding the book, and more promotion ahead in the United States and France itself, it will be interesting to see if Trierweiler manages – as she hopes – to concentrate solely on working with charity groups from now on. But what is clear is that the role of France’s First Lady is in need of change; just who will be able to make it happen remains to be seen.