Surprise! François Hollande-Julie Gayet affair not deflected by policy
French president and partner going through 'a painful time,' but ratings bump up on reports of affair
The photos show a short man with a bit of a paunch getting off a motor scooter. He's wearing a large motorcycle helmet and is about to go into a building in Paris not far from the Elysée Palace — home of the French president — where Julie Gayet lives. She's a French actress.
He is the French president, François Hollande. You can't see his face because of the helmet but the magazine Closer, which published the photos, said it could identify him by his shoes.
It didn't explain how the shoes gave him away. Perhaps the French president wears special shoes, like the popes did for centuries.
In any event, things then happened quickly.
Hollande put out a press release deploring the publication of the photos and threatening to sue for invasion of privacy. Hollande's official partner, Valérie Trierweiler, was admitted to hospital. And the French media had a field day.
It ran stories on Gayet, it ran stories on Hollande's frequent midnight flits from the Elysée Palace, it ran stories on his bodyguard bringing croissants to the building the next morning, it ran stories on the rest of the world's media running stories on Hollande's adventures.
Hollande's aides retaliated with references to the "two bodies" of the French president — the public and the private one — and how they should be kept separate.
This is remarkable language in the 21st century, harking directly back to the medieval concept of the king's two bodies, the natural, corruptible one and the spiritual one symbolizing the monarchy's divine right to rule.
Did they really expect a modern democracy, let alone the man's partner, to grasp the difference?
And the first lady is?
As it happened, the noise about Hollande's night visit exploded just four days before one of France's monarchical pageants — the annual presidential press conference.
It took place Tuesday in the Elysée Palace's "Salle des fêtes" under enormous chandeliers. Six hundred journalists crowded in.
The entire French cabinet sat to the president's right like schoolchildren listening as their professor outlined their homework for the next three years.
All of this followed the pattern created by a true elected monarch, Charles de Gaulle. His press pageants were completely choreographed — the journalists had their questions chosen and known in advance, and the Gaullian answers were delivered like mighty 18th-century sermons.
Hollande did his best, speaking for 35 minutes about the reforms he would undertake. They include sweeping budget cuts, relaunching certain European initiatives and bringing down unemployment. He even offered a little Gaullist rhetoric.
France, he said, must understand that she has a great destiny.
Hollande's destiny was to be asked in the first question: Would Valérie Trierweiler, still in hospital, remain the first lady of France?
No, the president said, he wouldn't answer that right away. They were going through a painful time. But there would be an answer before the French presidential visit to Washington in February.
So much for the president's two bodies.
How had it come to this?
For decades the French media said nothing about successive presidents' affairs of the night even when one, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, crashed a Ferrari into a milk truck at 4 a.m. with a woman, not his wife, in the passenger seat.
Another, François Mitterand, had a second family housed in an expensive building owned by the French government throughout his 14-year presidency, and not a word was published until his funeral, which the second family attended.
Some here blame the Americans — the publicity around Clinton's sexual adventures and the ensuing impeachment crisis. But the more immediate cause lies in France itself, indeed in the form of Hollande's predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy was often accused of being "too American." He talked in public of his private life.
His second wife, Cécilia, left him soon after he became president. Then he took up with the singer/model Carla Bruni and announced, at a presidential press conference, "it's serious between Carla and me." Soon after they married.
But Hollande seemed convinced after winning the presidency in May 2012 that the older rules still applied.
He reportedly asked staff almost immediately how he could escape the palace at night. And his evening excursions were frequent.
After news of his alleged affair became public, the august newspaper Le Monde criticized the "disquieting presidential flightiness."
It should be said that three-quarters of the French questioned professed to be indifferent to reports of his affairs. Indeed, following this latest development his low poll numbers actually bounced up a little, particularly among women, it turned out.
That will be of little consolation to Hollande. His "personal body" has completely upstaged his "monarchical body" and its initiative to relaunch his moribund leadership with a raft of changes and reforms.
The shoes of the president, encasing the feet of that personal body, are probably fitting a little more tightly right now.