The French love a conspiracy theory. No wonder, then, that, right from the start, Francois Hollande and his most trusted Elysee staff were - and still are - convinced that the whole Paparazzo Fiasco, revealing his nights out with the actress Julie Gayet (still merrily trending as #gayetgate on Twitter) had been masterminded by none other than Nicolas Sarkozy.
A variation, put about by both the militant wing of the Socialist party, and some unnamed friends of the embattled (soon-to-be-ex?) First Girlfriend, still raged at France's police force, but named the current Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, a law-and-order type far more popular than his boss. Valls, they believe, is the sinister party bent on ruining a lacklustre leader whose job he allegedly covets. ("Moi?" was the gist of Valls's public reaction when it was hinted that he'd let the president score an own goal rather than recommend prudence.) But Hollande himself - perhaps recalling that Valls had been a very efficient campaign manager, never forgetting among other duties to straighten the candidate's notoriously askew tie before every rally, had no doubts.
A regular Elysee visitor recalls that the evening before last week's Closer magazine came out, the moped-friendly president raged, of his predecessor, "Half the police brass are still Sarkozy's friends! They leaked the information for him! Only last week I know he told supporters to 'read the celebrity magazines' because they 'might find them amusing'!" Hollande had been hoping to make history by announcing a social-democrat-style economic U-turn in his first press conference of the year. Suddenly awakened to the need to revive the lagging French economy by lowering corporate taxes as well as cutting spending by 50 billion euros, he was perhaps aiming to replicate the great Mitterrand U-turn of 1983, when the Left's sweeping nationalisations and currency controls programme was suddenly halted, under the guidance of then finance minister Jacques Delors (and the merest nudge from the IMF).
Le Gayetgate comprehensively scuppered his plans. Yet, holding the longest press conference in presidential history, Hollande stonewalled but did not deny the facts, only bemoaning the infringement of his "right to a private life". He had, in fact, been informed that Closer had a lot more material, some of which it duly published last Friday. Closer's latest instalment on Friday (the editor, Laurence Pieau, tantalisingly promises "more scoops" in coming weeks) claims that, reverting to time-honoured form, the president, far from indulging in a mere fling, had in fact been conducting a two-year secret affair, complete with weekends on the Riviera and hand-in-hand strolls in Hollande's constituency, with separated mother-of-two Gayet.
For years, this was how he had two-timed his partner Segolene Royal with a pretty, lively, quite married Paris-Match political journalist, Valerie Trierweiler. Old interviews were dug up; while discreet, Gayet had mentioned that she had met "an older man, in politics, very different from her previous partners" and that she was very much in love. Friends also revealed that at a time when Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler were obviously attempting a new start, in the summer of 2012, Gayet was more than once found in tears - but by the autumn, she was her ebullient, happy self again.
The minister for culture, Aurelie Filipetti, suddenly named Julie Gayet to the 2014 jury of France's most prestigious, 350-year-old cultural prize, which grants a year-long residency at the French Academy at Villa Medici in Rome to a dozen artists. Laureates include the painters Fragonard and Ingres and the musicians Bizet and Berlioz. Her appointment was suddenly cancelled after the revelations. Why should Hollande have worried? On the one hand, his two political mentors, Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac, pretty much got away with anything of that nature for decades, sequentially and simultaneously: occasional mistresses, quickies on the hustings, parallel families, an all-encompassing roving eye.
The French press was not only hemmed in by the most stringent privacy laws in the Western world, it was also traditionally subservient to politicians from whom, most of the time, it expected patronage and subsidies.
A different breed of investigative reporter had equally good reason to want to keep the lid firmly shut on politicians' private lives: they themselves had compliques arrangements, and did not wish to put them in play. When this has been the stuff of your formative years, it seems far-fetched to consider that, perhaps, the freight train that eventually hits you straight into your midsection was of your own creation. Even lacking Francois Mitterrand's sinuous sophistication, or Jacques Chirac's feral swagger, Hollande was noted over the years for enjoying an agreeably varied, if complicated, private life far away from the glare of publicity. There were always pretty Socialist volunteers; bright young sparks willing to bravely contest a marginal seat; and of course female political journalists of a certain type.
His party's long-standing spokesman before he became leader, Hollande was a rarity among the breed of political enarques, those haughty graduates of the Ecole nationale d'administration, the inbred elite school whose alumni occupy most positions of power in France: he was approachable, funny, unpretentious. His briefings, which I attended fairly often in the mid-Nineties, were relaxed and mercifully cant-free.
"To women," a friend who covered the Socialist party for years says, "he has always had the Woody Allen appeal: he makes them laugh and listens to them." This same friend recalls, of Valerie Trierweiler, that "she was the only one of our pack to take a huge wheeled suitcase on any junket to the provinces; the rest of us made do with little holdalls but Valerie changed her outfits and redid her hair three times a day." In an uncanny echo of today's love triangle, Segolene suspected, but didn't want to push things into the open, which is a very French way of managing your man. (When a Frenchman lies to his wife, she assumes he may have strayed, but actually wants to save the marriage; otherwise he wouldn't go to all this trouble.
There are few more terrifying words to a French wife than: "Darling, there's something I must tell you…") Notorious for never firing anyone, Hollande is a man who believes in keeping his friends close and his ex-girlfriends closer. While he grumbles about the drama that always seems to follow him, it is difficult not to notice that he always seems to leave a trail of handsome but hysterical women in his wake. It seems as if Hollande himself, a man who has often spoken of his adored mother's unconditional love and the part it played in giving him a deep well of self-confidence, is adept at withholding the assurances of his own love from his various partners, as well as his children. (He once famously said: "I know I haven't often been there for my children, but I know they haven't suffered from it at all.")During her 2007 presidential campaign, Segolene, his partner of 23 years at the time, and the mother of his four children, famously proposed to him, only half in joke, on camera, during a television puff report that saw the aspiring presidential couple making the rounds of her constituency. The entire country recalls Hollande's embarrassed pause, frozen half-grin, then awkward answer: "I'll answer this after the end of the programme".
Seven years later, never having given the required answer, he similarly kicked into touch last week a question by veteran journalist Nicolas Domenach on who would accompany him as First Lady of France to his state visit to Washington in mid-February. With exactly the same pained attempted grin, Hollande promised that the press would have his answer by the time of the visit itself. The truth is that, again true to form, he hasn't made up his mind yet.
Various visitors report different strategies, still mooted or already aborted. Last week, after the first flurry of revelations, a number of advisers pushed him to make a quick break with Valerie Trierweiler, a woman who is almost as disliked by the Elysee staff as she is by the country at large. Reporters were told to expect a joint communique during the weekend, possibly even on Saturday: this would, the spin team hoped, make the separation relatively old news by the following Tuesday's press conference. This was scotched in no uncertain terms by Miss Trierweiler.
Closer had ridiculed her into the unwilling patsy of a French farce: she dramatised proceedings by making public the fact that her old friend Francois Bachy, a former TF1 reporter now head of corporate communications for the state-owned bank Caisse des Depots (a cushy appointment she is said to have pushed for), had driven her straight to La Pitie-Salpetriere hospital some time on Friday. Various rumours made the rounds, from "she took one pill too many" to "she's exhausted and her blood pressure is dangerously low". In fact, say insiders, her blood pressure was, if anything, boiling when Hollande told her of Closer's story on the eve of publication, and she threw a violent tantrum, smashing among others a priceless Sevres vase belonging to the Elysee, Hollande, who has been at the receiving end of such tantrums more than once in recent years, just stood there expressionless until she left in tears, having called the faithful Bachy.
Within 24 hours, Hollande had texted to suggest his idea of a clean exit. Not being married to the president, Trierweiler no doubt reflected bitterly that if she acquiesced meekly, she would find herself fired as 'First Girlfriend' without notice, with a brutality no employment court would countenance in France, a country notorious for its strict labour protection laws. Again echoing Segolene Royal's many attempts to reconquer her man years earlier, Trierweiler spoke to another friendly journalist, Frederic Gerschel of Le Parisien, saying grandly that as long as she obtained "clarification", she was ready "to forgive". And there things more or less rested for the week.
Trierweiler became the Schrodinger First Lady, unseen but a ghostly presence inside her closed hospital room, overshadowing Hollande's press conference with intent. It should be noted that while the foreign press found the whole show surreal, Hollande is reportedly very pleased with his performance: according to one poll, 75 per cent of the French approve his refusal to talk of his affair; and some 40 per cent favour his economic turn to the centre.
Trierweiler has now left the hospital, where Hollande visited her only once, moving on to rest (at the taxpayers' expense) at La Lanterne, the presidential weekend residence in the park of Versailles. And while her desire to be spared the glare of publicity in a protected environment is understandable, it is also obvious that she is clinging to any signs that suggest she is still part of the presidential machine.
"It's Hollande," one journalist who's followed him for years says. "He may yet take her back." Nobody close to the scene in Paris is willing to take bets on its outcome. The general consensus is that once again, in the middle of a storm, Hollande has elected to wait. His calculations may be wrong. French attitudes to the whole affair have been notably schizophrenic, with "classic" pollsters receiving the "expected" answers, while an online analysis reveals a very different story. From the social media to internet polls, the interest is still white hot.
Closer sold all of its 600,000 copies in 24 hours in the first week, and is reprinting this week's issue after an initial 700,000 print run. Analysts recall that the French similarly said they were not interested in Nicolas Sarkozy's private life - and yet their 2012 choice to vote him out was essentially driven by his personality, not his politics. It's something the Sarkozy-obsessed Hollande might usefully ponder.