La Presse’s correspondent in Paris, Michèle Ouimet, recently wrote a story about a dating site for married people who want part-time lovers. The agency proudly displays ads in the subway and on buses, all promoting infidelity with humorous and engaging slogans.
Ms. Ouimet interviewed a man who had numerous sexual encounters through this website. He enthusiastically described his experiences with a flurry of details, from the many times he had sex in movie theatres or in back alleys to the time a woman performed a fellatio on him in the toilets of a train station while her husband was looking after the suitcases. After he described himself as a successful businessman, Ms. Ouimet asked him how much money he made a year. The man recoiled, shocked: “Oh, that I won’t tell you!” he said.
This is France: a country where people freely talk about sex, but where money is the ultimate taboo. So it’s not surprising that French President François Hollande’s two-year secret affair with actress Julie Gayet was no cause for scandal in itself, after the gossip magazine Closer published pictures of Mr. Hollande being driven at night on a scooter to the apartment that served as the lovers’ hideout (coincidentally, the rue du Cirque apartment, not far from the Élysée Palace, is just six doors away from the house where the emperor Napoleon III lodged his English mistress, Harriet Howard).
Mr. Hollande’s personal rating, already very low because of the country’s dismal economy, was not much affected. What shocked the French was not the fact that Mr. Hollande had a mistress, but the clumsy, grotesque image that came out – that of a President carelessly flouting the most elementary security rules to rush to a rendez-vous galant like a teenager, sitting behind a bodyguard-turned-scooter-driver, partly masked by a bicycle helmet. Not only did the scene cast ridicule on France, but it showed a disquieting lack of judgment for a head of state.
Mr. Hollande was foolishly exposing himself to the risk of a car accident, a terrorist attack, or blackmail, let alone the risk of publicly humiliating Valérie Trierweiler, the woman who had been sharing his life for eight years and acting as First Lady. Rumours of his affair had been going on for months, the paparazzi were on high alert and a scandal was bound to explode, but the President seemed to think that a man as exposed as he was could get away with leading a double life, in an era where the private lives of public personalities are shamelessly scrutinized by the media.
The President was already known as a chronically wobbling politician, unable to take firm stands on issues. He behaved the same way in his private life.
Ms. Trierweiler had heard the rumour, but as Mr. Hollande kept denying it, she chose to believe him. He told her the truth at the very last minute, on the night before Closer was due to hit the stands (the President’s office receives advance copies of publications). Ms. Trierweiler, distraught, was hospitalized for a week. She was still willing to forgive, but she found herself ejected from Mr. Hollande’s life by a terse presidential announcement that sounded like a termination notice.
For his current official visit, as a bachelor, to the White House, the French President has looked in a great mood, but this latest episode will not improve his image. It’s not what he did – anybody can fall in and out of love. It’s how he did it.