Phew, the French thought when Francois Hollande, a politician with the personality of bread mould, became president two years ago. At least they had been spared the early favourite, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose celebrated inability to keep his pantalons above half-mast would surely have landed the country in an embarrassing sex scandal. Francois might be boring, but his dutiful attachment to taxing the country out of existence would at least keep the Elysee Palace's cleaning staff safe from the fear of molestation.
Anyway, the new president brought with him a scrumptious First Girlfriend, one Valerie Trierweiler, a shapely, split-skirt-wearing magazine writer, hailed by her own publication as "the world's sexiest journalist". When Valerie clattered up the Elysee's marble steps, slipsteaming expensive perfume, the look of triumph in her caramelly eyes suggested she would not easily be shifted. Last week Mme T, 48, was considering her options as Francois was plastered over seven pages of a rival glossy apparently pursuing an affair with French actress Julie Gayet, 41.
Photographs showed the President arriving at Mme Gayet's Paris flat on the back of a bodyguard's motorbike, and the same bodyguard returning the next morning with a bag of croissants. The political class duly erupted into one of its self-righteous fulminations about the sanctity of private lives, but the question on most people's lips was: "How does Francois do it?" Recently voted the world's worst politician, and still plumbing ever-deeper depths of domestic unpopularity, the wobbly-chopped socialist can be forgiven for seeking consolation somewhere. His cabinet despairs of his uselessness, and in the dark corners of old, Left Bank restaurants there is growing talk of some kind of constitutionally-feasible coup d'etat being hatched to get rid of him. Among voters the issue is not so much croissants as croissance - economic growth - or rather the conspicuous lack of it since Hollande came to power.
Beyond bleeding the nation's taxpayers white and driving out everyone hoping to make an honest sou, the president has proved ineffectual to the extent that a report in the Economist last week argued that France is now doing even worse than Greece. All this is likely to neutralise whatever sneaking admiration Hollande could have expected from a country that takes the marital cavortings of its rulers with impressive calm. "Think of the embarrassment if anyone but me had made the discovery," the Duc de la Rochefoucauld told his wife after catching her in bed with a lover.
To this day, the French affect incomprehension at the moral outrage that tends to descend on any British or American politician whose private life attracts the attention of the media. But the old protocols are changing fast. Hollande's headline-crazed predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy demolished centuries of tradition by revealing at a press conference that he was dating ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, prompting his estranged wife, Cecila to accurately denounce him as "ridiculous, badly behaved and not fit to be president", portraying, for good measure, the women in his life as "des petasses fardees" - which roughly translated as "a bunch of scrubbers." Ironically, it was the voters' distaste for Sarko's soap-operatic presidency that cleared the way for Hollande to take over.
The public assumed it knew what it was getting, and in many ways it did. The new man was the very model of the modern Socialist Party functionary. He had never had a proper job in his life, instead spending the 30-plus years since leaving university filling thankless party jobs while slowly ascending its hierarchy. In the back-corridors he was known as "Mr Meccano" for his ability to engineer compromises between the party's ever-feuding factions.
The talent won him plaudits, but it would later reveal an inability to make his own mind up. Nowhere has this failing been more apparent than in his sex life. While still a student at the Ecole Nationale d'Admininstration, the elite college that turns out France's bureaucrats, Hollande met Segolene Royal a glossily-coiffed fellow political obsessive, with whom he would go on to have four children, but never marry. In the couple's grand apartment off the Avenue de Breteuil, marriage wasn't considered an important issue. What mattered was which of them would get to the Elysee first.
Enter Mme Trierweiler, a reporter with Paris Match, assigned to cover the pair's intriguing political rivalry. Soon, however, her mission changed to prising Francois from his cosy domestic nest. This was accomplished - according to La Fronde(The Troublemaker), a delectable biography of Valerie - despite her still being married to her second husband at the time and maintaining a further relationship with Sarko's former finance minister, Patrick Devedjian. With Segolene spitting nails, and Valerie clinging on to her man for grim death, Hollande finally landed the top job in May 2012.
During the election campaign he packaged himself as Monsieur Normal, and, as wits soon pointed out, he half kept his word - the "mal" bit. It is hard not to have some sympathy for this dithering, henpecked son of a provincial doctor, who has lived his entire life insulated from the daily grind. Everything he ever read in those endlessly exciting Socialist Party pamphlets told him that clobbering the rich and the corporations would solve the country's problems, but instead he has been vilified for raising the sales tax on Nutella, France's beloved breakfast spread, and punishing the working man. Now he must deal with the awkward problem of Valerie's official status.
When she arrived at the Elysee, she was given the de facto position of First Lady, although France recognised no such role. She has since enjoyed all the perks of a presidential wife with a large staff and a generous budget. If she has now been replaced, the taxpayers will rightly wonder what they are forking out for, and this issue alone clearly places last week's revelations in the public interest. As for Francois, the questions are even trickier. Will the fall out from his new alleged fling distract him from his duties? And, if so, might the country not be better off.