Will affair allegations cost France's Hollande his 'Mr. Normal' image?

Though French President François Hollande is deeply unpopular, the French appreciated his 'everyday' image. Now a tabloid scandal may deprive him of even that.

Jacques Brinon/AP/File
French president François Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler stand at the Elysee Palace, in Paris in September. The magazine Closer published images today showing what it says is evidence of an affair between Mr. Hollande and actress Julie Gayet – allegations in sharp contrast to the president's long efforts to portray himself as 'Mr. Normal.'

Until today, French President François Hollande, despite struggling with record unpopularity, could still claim to be "Mr. Normal." But now even that image may be gone, thanks to a celebrity tabloid's allegation that he is having an affair with a French film star.

The magazine Closer, the same tabloid that caused a stir when it published photos of Kate Middleton topless, today published photos allegedly showing late-night comings-and-goings of Mr. Hollande and movie actress Julie Gayet. Hollande says he might take legal action. Hollande is not in fact married, but has a long-term girlfriend who acts as France's first lady. Prior to that, he had a three-decade relationship with Ségolène Royal, a prominent politician, with whom he has four children. They officially separated in 2007.

The tabloid's image of the president sharply contrasts with the one that Hollande cultivated on the campaign trail in 2012. Though he was not necessarily a beacon of hope, what he had going for him then was his “every day” demeanor that the French desperately sought. His “Mr. Normal” moniker was not inspirational, but the French wanted anything that contrasted with the “bling” of their former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who wed singer and former model Carla Bruni in office and had no qualms about his lavish lifestyle.

The media hoopla over Hollande's alleged affair now threatens to take away one of his last selling points.

It's not that allegations, and even full proof, of an affair alone would undo Hollande's presidency or have the impact of Bill Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The French couldn't fathom the Lewinsky scandal that dogged the former American president. Here, domestic matters, even of the highest public figures, are considered to be private affairs. Sarkozy was not punished for his romance but his extravagance.

Many French readers, on Internet sites, have voiced disgust with the tabloid for prying into the president's private life.

Even Hollande rival Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, defended the president's right to privacy: “As long as it doesn't cost the taxpayer a penny ... I believe everyone has the right to have their private life respected,” she said.

But even if the public considers this matter private, Hollande needs to cling to every bit of credibility that he has left. His perceived inability to reduce unemployment numbers (hovering around 11 percent), make decisive moves to revive the economy, or maintain a sense of authority with constant U-turns have turned him into the most unpopular modern French president.

Now, details of an affair with a star could take away his one remaining strength. 

“I didn't expect this,” says one French woman. “We had these kinds of headlines with Sarkozy, but I didn't expect it from Hollande.”

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