Two weeks after rumours of the President's relationship with an actress were revealed, Francois Hollande confirms his separation from his First Lady, Valerie Trierweiler. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet reports from Paris The President's indecision was nearly final.
Yesterday (Saturday), after denials and counter-denials from the Elysee, Francois Hollande finally announced, "as a private person" supposedly wholly distinct from Francois Hollande the President of France, that he was separating from his partner of eight years (or possibly nine, or 10), Valerie Trierweiler, bringing to a close an 11-day crisis that started with the publication, on January 17, of pictures showing him coming out of a lover's flat.
Hollande had been having a two-year affair with Julie Gayet, an arthouse film actress and separated mother-of-two who had been introduced to the President by his son. Until the end, Trierweiler had hoped to salvage her de facto First Lady's position.
When, three days ago, her habitual lawyer, Frederique Giffard, dared to suggest in an interview that her mercurial client wished for a "proper and dignified exit", Trierweiler promptly fired her. Coming out of hospital last week, after recuperating from the shock caused by the scandal, she had insisted on staying at the presidential week-end residence, La Lanterne, a hunting lodge in the park of Versailles, rather than the 15th arrondissement flat where she and Hollande still lived together until a few months ago.
Midweek, Trierweiler upped the ante by announcing she would travel as scheduled to India on a charitable visit organised by the NGO Agir Contre La Faim (Fight Against Hunger), which had been organised months ago when she was the undisputed First Lady.
This, like several of her moves, may have backfired: the Elysee started being questioned on every aspect of the trip. Would she be received by the French Ambassador? Who was paying for the visit? (Answers: "No", and "Not us".)
It began to look to Hollande's aides and advisers as if, after having partly jinxed the President's press conference a week before, his sometime partner might begin to complicate his foreign policy. As it happens, India matters a great deal to France, not least because it is probably the only country still likely to buy the excellent but eye-wateringly expensive Dassault Rafale fighter jet, until now only supported by French Air Force orders.
It was becoming, the President was told with increasing insistence, necessary to cut the knot. From the day Closer magazine published the pictures that would turn out to liberate him from an increasingly loveless alliance, Hollande had brought in a very old friend, the star barrister Jean-Pierre Mignard.
A familiar of both Segolene Royal and Hollande for decades, who had already sat on the sidelines when the two separated in 2007, Mignard helped hammer out an agreement that was reportedly ready by Thursday lunchtime. And since then, Hollande, "the finger on the red button" (one aide said), was hesitating.
He still hesitated as he took the time to visit Pope Francis in Rome on Friday - accompanied, as it turned out, by his special adviser on Vatican affairs, the self-same Mignard, who is a devout Catholic and connected to Church circles in France.
The Pope received Hollande, the first avowed atheist president of France, with notable coldness, in a formal Vatican reception room rather than in his much simpler personal apartments, but this was less due to the president's complicated personal life than to his social reforms.
In less than two years, France has instituted gay marriage, made abortion simpler and is pondering a bill on euthanasia; more than 120,000 French Catholics had just sent a petition to the Pope begging him to express their distress, which he shares, to Hollande.
Their half-hour talk mostly centred on the attacks against Christians in the Levant (which France can't do much about) and in Africa, where she actually plays an important part. The President finally punched the button a few minutes before 6pm on Saturday, resigning himself to yet another explosion of headlines, pictures, comment and general pandemonium around his private life.
Valerie Trierweiler, whose visit was still confirmed in Mumbai at the time of writing, would be taking off as a private person. But as the gist of the deal started being known in Paris toward the end of the week, you already could watch courtiers and hangers-on scuttering away from her as if she were a plague carrier.
At one state-run television station, the political correspondent, who had been assigned to fly to India with Trierweiler, flatly refused to go. "I can't possibly cover her trip, the Elysee will believe I'm supporting her," he said. Whereupon a foreign reporter, completely unfamiliar with the domestic political scene, was told to go in his place.
Ever wilder rumours started doing the rounds in Paris, including one that transformed a report of Trierweiler smashing a vase in Hollande's Elysee study when learning of his affair into a three-million euro rampage. (This was finally denied, after a couple of days.) People told you, knowingly, that the Sevres vase incident was "par for the course for Valerie" - she was once so furious with a Paris-Match colleague, the experienced political reporter Sylvie Santini, who initially covered the Socialist party, too, that she rammed her own car into Santini's on purpose in the Match underground car park under their offices in Levallois, west Paris, and then refused to sign the insurance papers, screaming at Santini "You're a sad menopausal spinster!"
This was not helped by accounts, until now suppressed, about how "difficult" Valerie could be as First Lady. Feeling, as it turned out with some reason, too insecure, she had insisted on keeping her Paris-Match job and salary, where, having protested without success to what she saw as a demotion, she found herself barred from the political desk, and produced indifferent book reviews.
Yet she never hesitated to grab her telephone and scream at editor Olivier Royant whenever she found the coverage of her and Hollande not to her taste. Even before her apotheosis, she was known for her simmering resentment, ready to erupt into anger at any moment.
The journalists Elisabeth Schemla and Nicole Leibowitz, reporting for their book Pour le meilleur et pour le pire: Cinq femmes entre amour et politique, recall that when Hollande mentioned Segolene - his party's 2007 presidential candidate! - in a 2010 TV talk show, he received afterwards a text from Valerie in the green room, going suddenly white.
"We should never have mentioned Segolene on air!" he told telling the presenter, Le Point's editor Franz-Olivier Giesbert. "You can't be serious," Giesbert replied. "No, no, you don't understand. You have no idea of the kind of hell I'm going to get this evening at home."
Perhaps the head of the French State the most unlike Louis XIV in all French history, Hollande is turning out to arrange (almost certainly by default) his personal affairs a lot like the Sun King. Favourites are picked and discarded, and whichever woman enjoys his favour finds herself suddenly deluged with invitations, official and semi official positions, and cloyingly flattering press coverage.
Back in December, culture minister Aurelie Filipetti was too quick off the mark when she made Gayet a juror of the important Villa Medicis art residency, and had to "disappear" the nomination from the Ministry's website, saying it was "never confirmed". But Gayet, a forgettable if hard-working indie actress, found herself in 2012 - the moment when, from recent reports, her affair with Hollande started - suddenly in partnership with one of France's most powerful billionaires, the Gucci and YSL owner Francois Pinault, for her personal production company. Gayet is the perfect Paris version of a NW1 luvvie.
The child of rich parents with a social conscience, she was brought up in the Paris equivalent of Chiswick, then Belgravia (Suresnes then rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, where coincidentally the Elysee is located). She has studied acting in London but at the Actors Studio; has had parts in over 50 French films, and has never found a Left-wing cause she doesn't like.
She has an "edgy" reputation that she maintained over the years by a willingness to undress in front of the camera, and by reading out erotic novels on a late night radio programme, "Chaude Est La Nuit" (Hot is the Night) on Europe 1, the mainstream radio station.
Apart from being a younger, slimmer version of his regular partner, she is a real change from the petite-bourgeoise Valerie, whose attitude to keeping her man has all the sophistication of a saucy seaside postcard.
She may be fascinated by Hollande, but from all accounts he is seriously hooked, or at least as hooked as a notorious non-committer like him can be. In the past three weeks, the French have talked of little else than the soap opera deliciously unwinding in front of their eyes. Still, the media and political establishment is in official denial.
On Friday night, as I took part on a television panel recapping the week's news, I was fascinated by my three co-panellists insistence that none of this really mattered in the grand scheme of things. Like most newpaper pundits, Left and even Right, what they wanted to comment on was the government's economic policies, and how cannily Hollande had trapped the opposition leaders with his announcements.
They were not, they demurred, voyeurs like the Anglo-Saxons. And yet less publicised polls are now showing Hollande losing some of his last supporters on his Left. They don't like his Social Democrat new clothes, but more importantly about a third of them don't see much difference now between him and Nicolas Sarkozy. Scandals, bling, messy private life - check.
If these voters decide to abstain in the coming municipal elections, the Socialists could lose more than they tabled for. Even Paris, a complicated coalition of Greens, Trotskyites, Communists and Socialists, until now given as safe, could be in play: not because the conservative candidate Nathalie Kosciuszko-Morizet is waging a better campaign (she's not) but because of this new disaffection.
To counter it, Anne Hidalgo has just announced she favoured building a fairgrounds and social housing on the central lane of Avenue Foch, Paris's answer to Park Lane, an audacious project designed to stick it to the rich, and reassure her Leftist comrades that whatever Hollande gets up to with actresses and the such, she has nothing to do with it.