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Debra Ollivier

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Valerie Trierweiler And Francois Hollande: Why The French Don't Say 'I Do'

Posted: 05/15/2012 11:39 am

When the wife of former French president Giscard d'Estaing was asked what she wanted to do as France's First Lady, Anne-Aymone Giscard d'Estaing said: "To no longer be one." Similarly, when the second wife of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was asked about the role of First Lady (Sarkozy has been married three times), Cecilia Sarkozy told the press: "I don't see myself as a First Lady. That bores me. I am not politically correct."

With the inauguration of Francois Hollande, France will have a new, equally "politically incorrect" First Lady -- sort of. Valerie Trierweiler is Francois Holland's partner -- a savvy and accomplished 47 year-old reporter and twice-divorced mother of three teenagers who downplays her unmarried status to Hollande. "I'm not sure it will come up all that much," she told Agence France Press. "Maybe when visiting the pope? Frankly, it is not really something that bothers me. This question of marriage is above all a personal matter in our private life."

Trierweiler, in her conviction to keep private matters out of the public domain, is irrefutably French. (As Bill Maher once quipped: "The French have weird ideas about privacy. They think it should be private.") Ditto with respect to her suggestion that her marital status has any bearing on Hollande's ability to govern his country. And that's because despite occasional blips on the nuptial radar, more than 50 percent of French people choose cohabitation over marriage, even when when little bébé comes into the picture.

Essentially, the institution of marriage not an institution in France. For socio-cultural reasons that go back centuries, tying the knot doesn't matter to the French the way it does, profoundly so, to Americans, because as France Prioux, director at INED (Institut National d'Etudes Démographiques) once explained to me: "There is a certain revolt in France against established institutions. This is part of the French nature, the French spirit. There is no social disapproval in France with not being married. This is the case across the entire socio-economic spectrum. People now ask: 'Why marry?'"

That question not only cuts across the socio-economic spectrum; it cuts across the political ones, as well.

History books and the press abound with stories about the "irregular" connubial relationships of French presidents, from Mitterand with his long-standing extra-marital relationship, to Francois Hollande himself. Francois Hollande and Segolène Royal, France's first woman presidential contender, cohabitated for decades and had four children together before they separated.

Royal, like Trierweiler, conspired against many things Anglo-Saxon. Her ability to seamlessly navigate the world of motherhood with the demands of the political arena and the eternal need to find just right lipstick was something women all over the world could appreciate, but it was her sex appeal and her unconventional relationship with Hollande that got the outside world hot and bothered. Her mélange of femininity and political power were so far off the American radar that Salon Magazine suggested she lives "in a parallel universe." And Andrew Hussey nearly gushed in The Guardian: "Royal's power is sexual...she is flirtatious, stylish and feminine in equal measures... Is she Marie-Antoinette or Marianne?" Like many of her French sisters, including Trierweiler, she was a little bit of both.

When it came to her relationship with François Hollande, Royal frequently called herself a "free woman." And when their relationship began to show signs of strain, the couple's personal issues were not perceived as a fatal flaw or a point of great public import. When asked whether they were a couple, Mr. Hollande simply replied: "It is not for us to either confirm or deny. Our lives belong to us.'" Everyone in France seemed to agree.

This kind of thinking expressed by political figures is nearly unthinkable in America, where the presidential couple is a model on a grandiose scale of what constitutes a good couple: Not two separate individuals but One Couple, Indivisible, the First Lady being iconic here. She is a figurehead of rectitude and propriety; a cheerleader and a den mother who, even with her personal commitments to social crusades, must sublimate a certain amount of personal independence or iconoclasm for the sake of least impersonating a good political wife. Veering from this norm rubs against the American grain in a big way. I'm reminded of Teresa Heinz, Senator John Kerry's wife, during Kerry's bid for the presidential election. Heinz fell right into this gray zone. She was independent, quirky, sophisticated, iconoclastic and so unapologetically sensual that the American media didn't know what to make of her. As one reporter sniffed, "She's too European."

For now, the biggest open question about Valerie Trierweiler and Francois Hollande's marital status revolves around, as The Telegraph called it, the "protocol conundrum" they may face visiting Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. But even this might be much ado about nothing. As a French journalist told me, "The Arabs have known the French well for millennia. I'm not sure anything we do can surprise them. When a king of some Gulf Emirate comes to Paris, he usually brings dozens of wives with him -- and no one checks if they are all legally married to him."

In short, the separation of personal and private life in France is tantamount to the separation of Church and State. Perhaps that's best expressed by out-going French president Sarkozy, who once told Le Figaro: "In France you elect a candidate, not a family."

Trierweiler's new role has thrust her into the public spotlight. Check out our slideshow of France's new "First Partners" below.

Loading Slideshow...
  • President Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler

    France's President Francois Hollande (C,L) and his companion Valerie Trierweiler (C,R) arrive at the Tuileries Garden in Paris to attend a tribute ceremony to the 19th century education reformer Jules Ferry, following the formal handover of investiture ceremony between France's president Francois Hollande and his predecessor on May 15, 2012.

  • Outgoing, Incoming

    France's outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy (L) shakes hands with France's president-elect Francois Hollande (R), next to Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (2nd row R) and Hollande's companion Valerie Trierweiler, as they are about to leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, on May 15, 2012 in Paris.

  • Valerie Trierweiler

    Valerie Trierweiler, companion of France's president-elect Francois Hollande arrives at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, to attend an official investiture ceremony during which her companion will be invested as France's president, on May 15, 2012.

  • Valerie Trierweiler

    Valerie Trierweiler, companion of France's president-elect Francois Hollande arrives at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, to attend an official investiture ceremony during which her companion will be invested as France's president, on May 15, 2012.

  • Valerie Trierweiler

    Valerie Trierweiler, companion of France's president-elect Francois Hollande arrives at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, to attend an official investiture ceremony during which her companion will be invested as France's president, on May 15, 2012.

  • France's president Francois Hollande and

    France's president Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, after he being officially invested as France's president on May 15, 2012, at the end of the formal investiture ceremony.

  • France's president Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler

    France's president Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, after he being officially invested as France's president on May 15, 2012, at the end of the formal investiture ceremony.

  • First Partners

    Valerie Trierweiler (C), companion of France's president-elect Francois Hollande attends the formal investiture ceremony during which her companion will be invested as France's president, on May 15, 2012 at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, next to France's Senate Socialist president, Jean-Pierre Bel (L) and a protocol officer. The chain of 'Grand Maitre' in the Order of the Legion of Honor is seen at right.

  • Valerie Trierweiler

    Valerie Trierweiler, companion of France's president-elect Francois Hollande arrives at the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, to attend the formal investiture ceremony during which her compagnion will be invested as France's president, on May 15, 2012.

  • Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler

    France's president Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the Elysee presidential Palace in Paris, after he being officially invested as France's president on May 15, 2012, at the end of the formal investiture ceremony.

  • First 'Companion'

    Valerie Trierweiler, companion of France's new President Francois Hollande, attends the investiture ceremony at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Tuesday, May 15, 2012.

  • Valerie Trierweiler

    Valerie Trierweiler, the companion of French President-elect Francois Hollande leaves his campaign headquarters in Paris, Wednesday May 9, 2012. After winning the French Presidential Election, Hollande seems set to embark on a whir-wind introduction to international politics, with critical visits already being scheduled to Berlin, the US, and two top international summits.

  • Francois Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler

    French president-elect Francois Hollande wave to supporters with his companion Valerie Trierweiler after greeting crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. France handed the presidency Sunday to leftist Hollande, a champion of government stimulus programs who says the state should protect the downtrodden -- a victory that could deal a death blow to the drive for austerity that has been the hallmark of Europe in recent years. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

  • Francois Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler

    French president-elect Francois Hollande, center left, wave to supporters with his companion Valerie Trierweiler after greeting crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

  • Francois Hollande, Valerie Trierweiler

    French president-elect Francois Hollande, left, turns back as his companion Valerie Trierweiler smiles after greeting supporters gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

  • First Partners Embrace

    French president-elect Francois Hollande embraces his companion Valerie Trierweiler after greeting crowds gathered to celebrate his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)

  • The Wave

    Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler wave as he tours through villages near Tulle, central France, after voting in the second round of the presidential elections, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

  • Hollande and Trierweiler

    Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande smiles with his companion Valerie Trierweiler as he tours Tulle, central France, after voting in the second round of the presidential election, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

  • Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande exits a polling station with his companion Valerie Trierweiler as he tours after voting in the second round of the presidential election in Tulle, central France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

  • Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave after voting in the second round of the presidential election in Tulle, central France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

  • Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande waves as he leaves with his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave after voting in the second round of the presidential election in Tulle, central France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

  • Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler smile after voting in the second round of the presidential election in Tulle, central France, Sunday, May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

  • French Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion French journalist Valerie Trierweiler, visit the market in Tulle, southwestern France, on the eve of the presidential election second round, Saturday, May 5, 2012.(AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau)

  • French Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande gives a red rose to his companion Valerie Trierweiler, in Tulle, southwestern France, Saturday, May 5, 2012. The second round of the French presidential elections will take place on May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

  • French Socialist Party candidate for the 2012 presidential elections Francois Hollande cheers supporters as his companion Valerie Trierweiler looks on after a meeting in Toulouse, Thursday, May 3, 2012, as part of his campaign for the second round of the French presidential elections on May 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

  • Francois Hollande , Valerie Trierweiler

    FILE This Thursday, April 5, 2012 file photo shows French Socialist Party candidate for the upcoming French presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion French journalist Valerie Trierweiler, left, leaving the Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po in Paris. The last time France voted for president, Francois Hollande was a portly, smiley man with a wishy-washy image playing second fiddle to Segolene Royal, his Socialist party's candidate and the mother of his four kids. Now he's a man with a trim waistline and promising future who managed a tough presidential debate with the air of, well, a president. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, file)

  • Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande and his companion Valerie Trierweiler leave the regional council in Tulle, central France, Sunday, April 22, 2012 after voting in the presidential election first round. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

  • Valerie Trierweiler and her companion and Socialist Party candidate for the presidential election Francois Hollande laugh as they stroll Tulle, central France, after voting in the presidential election first round, Sunday, April 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Bob Edme)

  • Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2

    Socialist Party (PS) candidate for the 2012 French presidential election Francois Hollande (L) is looked by his companion, French journalist Valerie Trierweiler (C), during the annual Representative Council of France's Jewish Associations (CRIF) dinner at the Pavillon d'Armenonville in Paris on February 8, 2012. AFP PHOTO / POOL / JACKY NAEGELEN (Photo credit should read JACKY NAEGELEN/AFP/GettyImages)

  • France's First Couple

 
 
 

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