In a country where fatwas are issued against girls singing in a rock band and couples celebrating Valentine’s Day are roughed up by hidebound traditionalists, it should come as no surprise that live-in relationships are frowned upon in India, even when the culprit happens to be the visiting French president.
When François Hollande arrives in India today – on Valentine’s Day – for a state visit, it will be appropriate that his partner and lover Valerie Trierweiler will be by his side.
But instead, it has provoked a minor crisis. The fact that the couple are not married forced the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi to update protocol dating back to the Raj. The existing rule meant that a head of state’s girlfriend or boyfriend could not be recognized as the official spouse and would therefore not live in the presidential palace in New Delhi, nor attend official functions.
In 2008, a freshly elected Nicholas Sarkozy, Mr. Hollande’s predecessor, was told that Carla Bruni, the girlfriend he had been dating for some months, would not be welcome to accompany him on his state visit. Ms. Bruni had no choice but to stay in Paris. Poor Mr. Sarkozy ended up visiting the fabled Taj Mahal, a symbol for all lovers, with a group of his ministers.
It was only after Ms. Bruni married Mr. Sarkozy that the couple visited India again two years later. This time they visited the Taj Mahal together, duly posing in front of the monument to love.
India’s not alone: Ms. Bruni was not allowed to accompany Mr. Sarkozy at all when he visited Saudi Arabia in 2008 because the kingdom forbids unmarried couples from being alone.
Luckily for Ms. Trierweiler, a 47 year old divorcee who has lived with Mr. Hollande since he separated from former French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal in 2007, she will be accorded all due respect and status as the ‘First Lady’ and ‘honorary wife’ during her visit now that India has relaxed its diplomatic rule.
Ms. Trierweiler will be permitted to sit next to the president at official banquets, have her own motorcade as the French delegation speeds through Delhi, and follow her own social and cultural program while Mr. Hollande is busy selling French nuclear plants and Dassault Rafale fighter jets to his hosts.
The Indian government decided to ignore religious hardliners demanding that Mr. Hollande should come on his own because he and his partner were ‘living in sin,’ a phrase that must seem quaint to the French with their capacity to absorb all manner of romantic permutations.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard faced the same problem last October during her visit to India over her boyfriend Tim Mathieson. The ‘First Bloke,’ as he is known, eventually decided not to come.
At a time when countries further west are giving full legal recognition to gay marriages, India may seem old-fashioned in having protocol rules forbidding girlfriends and boyfriends accompanying heads of state.
But you have to remember that this is a country where marriage is the absolute bedrock of society. Politicians and the rich may do as they wish and opt for irregular arrangements such as permanent mistresses, gay lovers, or ménages a trois, but many ordinary Indians don’t want to know about it. For them, any unmarried person is highly suspect, if a man, and totally beyond the pale, if a woman.
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