Is France ready for its trailblazing new first lady?

Valerie Trierweiler, France's first lady, is not married to President Hollande, and she plans to continue working as a journalist. 

Francois Mori/AP
This May 6 photo shows French president-elect Francois Hollande waving to supporters with his companion Valerie Trierweiler as he celebrates his election victory in Bastille Square in Paris, France.

Is Valerie Trierweiler a first lady, a first partner, a first companion, a first girlfriend, or a first journalist?

A month after the election of François Hollande as president of France, the role of his significant other is a cultural work in progress. Ms. Trierweiler, a journalist for 22 years, twice married, mother of three, born into modest circumstances and who earned high marks in the tough world of French media, says the term "first lady" sounds old-fashioned, and that she will keep her job at the magazine Paris Match.

“I am willing to represent the French image and do the necessary smiling,” Trierweiler said this week as attention began to focus on her unorthodox decision to remain on the job. “But I won’t be a mere figurehead.”

The female partner of President Hollande, who won office running as a “normal guy,” says she herself will try to keep something of a normal working life, writing two articles a month, one of which will profile a foreign diplomat or celebrity. She won’t write on French politics, according to Paris Match senior editors, one of whom is a former Trierweiler husband.

Yesterday, her first article since Hollande’s election – an appreciative review of Eleanor Roosevelt, famous as an activist and social reformer, and someone who kept a public journal as US first lady – was being seen as a harbinger of a Trierweiler approach. 

Trierweiler takes over from Carla Bruni, a singer and former fashion model who married outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy after his divorce while in office, and who proved to be more popular than he. 

France has never had an unmarried first lady, and the role in France is far less defined and official than in the US. Trierweiler wants to bring it down to earth. 
She said this week that working is not just something she wants to do, but with three daughters, needs to do.

A snippy press, a more accommodating public

Yet whether France is ready for a more assertive and independent first female, à la “Eleanor,” is hardly clear. L’Express asked this week if Trierweiler was “overdoing it” in her pronouncements. In the much-watched political puppet TV satire Les Guignols, she is depicted as bossy to Hollande’s shy persona, asking him in a hectoring fashion if he has finished typing her recent articles, urging him to fax out documents for her. Hollande in turn is often depicted as saying on important decisions, "let me check with my wife." 

Yet when the British newspaper The Telegraph referred to Trierwieler in a headline yesterday as a "Rottweiler," it caused an uproar in some French media. And when the term was first used in the French presidential campaign by then-ruling party member, Lionel Luka, who is presently seeking an political alliance with Front National leader Marine Le Pen, he was censured by Mr. Sarkozy. 

Triewieler has earned good initial marks from the public, which seems more willing to cut her slack. During a visit to the US last month, she was compared to Katherine Hepburn, had photo shoots with Michelle Obama, and scored points back home by gifting the US first lady a La Tanneur bag crafted by a popular designer from her home area of Correze. (Trierweiler’s visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was not her first; as a journalist, she covered a trip there by former French foreign minister Lionel Jospin.)

In the piece on an Eleanor Roosevelt biography that appeared yesterday, Trierweiler said that “'A journalist first lady is nothing new. Eleanor was a journalist and first lady and excelled at both while her husband guided America through the Depression… and the Second World War. “ Ms. Roosevelt “came to terms with sometimes having different opinions to FDR and refused to be reduced to silence.”

Trierweiler was born in Angers, and lost her father early; her mother earned wages as an usher at an ice skating rink. Trierweiler made her way in the tough world of French journalism; Hollande was the official partner of Ségolène Royale, with whom he had four children, when she ran for Socialist party president in 2007. But after her loss to Sarkozy he took up full time with Trierweiler, whom he describes as "the woman of my life." 

In a new piece of research by two Le Monde reporters on another French journalist-politician couple, Anne Sinclair and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who are married, Trierweiler is approached by Mr. Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief now under investigation on prostitution allegations. They report that, at a political event where Hollande is also present, he greets Treirweiler rakishly, asking, "How is France's most beautiful journalist?" 

Trierweiler responds, "I thought Anne Sinclair was the most beautiful French journalist." 

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