Hollande's affair puts focus on legal status of France's first lady

Position of president's partner in spotlight as she recovers in hospital from shock revelation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 4:37am
UPDATED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 10:14am

France's first ladies have always had a murky official existence, bound by no legal status but still given taxpayer-funded staff and an office.

As Valerie Trierweiler reels from allegations that her long-term partner, President Francois Hollande, has been having an affair with an actress, the issue of the first lady's legal status has once again come to the fore - all the more so as the two are not married.

Presidents' wives or partners are mentioned only once in the lawbooks of France - if they are widowed, they are entitled to a survivor's pension, as is the case with many other spouses.

But the president's partner is nevertheless always given an office and a secretary at the Elysee presidential palace, officially to respond to mail. She also has a bodyguard.

According to a recent investigation by VSD magazine, Trierweiler costs the state €19,742 (HK$209,273) a month - far less than the €60,000 spent by her predecessor Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the €80,000 used by Bernadette Chirac before that.

When the president goes abroad on official business, the state also pays for his partner to accompany him.

Questioned about the issue at a press conference on Tuesday, Hollande - who refused to comment on the alleged affair - called for "transparency" so that "the resources given to the partner be known, published and the lowest possible".

Trierweiler - who is being treated in hospital for extreme stress after claims of the affair - is due to accompany Hollande, 59, to the United States next month.

It is unclear whether that will now happen. Hollande said on Tuesday he would clarify the situation with Trierweiler before the trip, due on February 11.

Asked directly if Trierweiler was still the first lady, Hollande insisted on the couple's right to privacy. "I understand your question and I'm sure you will understand my response," he said.

"Everyone in their personal lives can go through tough times. That is the case for me. These are painful moments.

"But I have one principle - these private affairs are dealt with in private. This is neither the time nor the place to do it, so I will not be responding to any questions about my private life."

Trierweiler, 48, was admitted to hospital hours after Closer magazine published a series of photos showing Hollande and actress Julie Gayet, 41, arriving separately at a flat close to the Elysee Palace.

Media reports claimed Trierweiler, a former journalist, was suffering from low blood pressure, exhaustion and a "severe case of the blues".

Hollande reiterated his "total indignation" over Closer's intrusion into his private life, but said he would not be taking legal action over the report, which he has not denied.

Video: Rumoured affair turns messy for France's Hollande

The ambiguous status of France's first ladies has raised eyebrows in the past. In 2006, Socialist lawmaker Rene Dosiere raised the red flag on the fact that Jacques Chirac's wife Bernadette was able to use the Elysee's cars and chauffeurs at will.

A year later, he also questioned why Cecilia Sarkozy, then still married to the president, had been able to pay for items with a presidential credit card. To clarify the issue, some say a legal "first lady" status should be created, laying out what her position entails and the budget to which she should be entitled.

But others back a separation between the head-of-state's public and private lives, as is the case in many Western countries.

They say this is also more reflective of an evolving society in which divorces are common, couples do not necessarily marry and leading politicians' partners may not always want to put their own careers on hold.