Hollande’s popularity up amid affair rumours, but focus turns to stricken French ‘first lady’

Shake-up in his private life and news his partner remains in hospital for shock may overshadow president's high-profile news conference on economy

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 10:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 11:46am

French President Francois Hollande’s approval rating rose from a record low following a report he was having an affair with an actress, a rumour that may sidetrack his political speech as he prepares to address the nation on economic matters.

His approval rating increased two percentage points to 26 per cent in the survey by magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, conducted among 1,018 adults from last Friday to Saturday, around the time the allegations broke, Bloomberg reported.

Hollande, 59, allegedly had regular trysts with Julie Gayet, 41, in a borrowed apartment close to his official residence, according to a report published by Closer magazine on Friday.

Another survey found that 77 per cent of the French considered the affair a private matter, Bloomberg said, citing the French Institute of Public Opinion (Ifop).

However, news that his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, had been admitted to hospital in a state of shock, drove some critics to break their silence.

Watch: Rumoured affair turns messy for France's Hollande

“This has been disastrous for the image of the institution of the presidency,” said Jean-François Cope, head of the opposition UMP conservatives.

However, Hollande will aim at a news conference before some 500 journalists on Tuesday to deflect questions about his private life as he sets out plans to revive the weak French economy.

His New Year’s encounter with journalists in his Elysee Palace will be the French leader’s first public appearance since glossy tabloid Closer published photos it said showed Hollande making a nocturnal visit to Gayet.

His office complained of breach of privacy but did not issue a denial.

“This major political event must remain a major political event,” David Assouline, spokesman for Hollande’s Socialist party, said of the news conference, an annual setpiece which could go on as long as two hours.

Hollande plans to use the event to detail a proposed “responsibility pact” with business in which firms will be offered tax cuts and less red tape in return for hiring commitments aimed at reducing 12 per cent unemployment.

Concern over ‘first lady’

Left-wing daily Liberation said that Trierweiler’s hospitalisation meant the affair could no longer be brushed off as a purely private matter.

“It is hard to see how the president can avoid clarifying the situation – both medical and official – of the first lady,” it said.

Trierweiler, 48, was taken to hospital suffering from stress on Friday, and was initially expected to check out on Monday. But “doctors believe she needs more rest,” an aide said.

He really must clear up his personal situation so that we can address the serious issues we face
Thierry Mandon, spokesman for Socialist Party

Despite concerns that Hollande had apparently been taking risks with his own security with clandestine visits to the borrowed flat on a chauffeur-driven scooter, it looked like he would be allowed to resolve his personal dilemma behind closed doors.

But the fact that Trierweiler is effectively a public figure with an entourage funded by the taxpayer has made her future a legitimate news story.

Although France does not have an official first lady title, Trierweiler has her own office in the Élysée, a chauffeur and adviser, and accompanies Hollande on visits.

“He really must clear up his personal situation so that we can address the serious issues we face. He has to do it once, firmly and decisively, and then we don’t talk about it any more,” said Thierry Mandon, the spokesman for the Socialist Party’s parliamentary group

Twice-divorced Trierweiler, who put her career as a journalist for Paris Match on hold after Hollande’s 2012 election, has officially been the president’s partner since 2007, when he left Segolene Royal, a fellow heavyweight in the Socialist Party and the mother of his four children.

Looming troubles

Rumours that Hollande had become enamoured of Gayet have swirled around Paris since the actress appeared in a campaign video for him in which she gushed about him being “fantastic, humble and really ready to listen”.

In March last year, she filed a legal complaint for intrusion on her privacy after suggestions of an affair with Hollande were published on a number of obscure websites and blogs.

In contrast with Hollande, Francois Mitterrand was able to keep both his battle with cancer and the existence of a daughter he had with a mistress out of the press during his 14-year presidency that ended in 1995, Bloomberg noted. Former President Jacques Chirac’s nocturnal adventures, although widely known, were rarely ever reported, it said.

Closer, meanwhile, announced that it would be printing an extra 150,000 copies of the edition carrying its scoop in response to demand that has seen copies change hands on the internet for up to 10 times the regular cover price.

“It’s obviously not easy,” said Gayet’s former husband of eight years, Argentine writer Santiago Amigorena, whom she divorced in 2006. “At the same time, she’s very calm about it all and very sure of herself.”

Such calm is not shared when it comes to the euro zone’s second-largest economy. France’s blue-chip stock index CAC 40 is down 0.8 per cent, the worst performance among European bourses this year.

Analysts are for now sceptical about whether Hollande is really ready to act on his acknowledgement that France’s high public spending and taxation is restraining the economy and the creation of new jobs.

They point to local French elections in May and European Parliament polls two months later as limiting his room for manoeuvre on painful measures to cut public spending, currently around 57 per cent of output.