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French President Francois Hollande gives a speech to foreign ambassadors in Paris on Jan. 17, 2014. / Pool photo by Michel Euler


PARIS - When a magazine revealed French President Francois Hollande was having an affair last week, not many expected it would cause a stir in a country long-known to be tolerant of its leaders' paramours.

Now, a week after the disclosure of Hollande's affair with actress Julie Gayet, the nation's laissez-faire attitude toward infidelity among its leaders appears to be waning.

On Jan. 10, French celebrity magazine Closer dedicated a seven-page spread to the affair. Upon learning of the infidelity, Hollande's long-term girlfriend, journalist Valerie Trieweiler, was hospitalized after suffering a breakdown. Hollande didn't visit her in the hospital until Thursday night, an official at the presidential palace told the Associated Press on Friday. Trieweiler left the hospital Saturday, thanking her supporters on Twitter hours later.

Hollande's handling of how the affair went public seems to be at the heart of the public's disappointment.

"Because of our history, we are less shocked by these scandals. What happened is deplorable but it remains his private life," said 39-year-old Parisian Marion Tizi. "However, it shows lack of elegance and delicateness."

Closer revealed the secret affair has been going on for more than two years, well before Holland was elected and Trieweiler become the de facto first lady. The magazine published leaked photographs showing Hollande arriving on his scooter at night at an apartment a block away from the √?lys√©e Palace, the president's official residence in Paris near the Avenue des Champs-√?lys√©es.

Now, a week after the disclosure, the question on everyone's lips is: Who now is France's first lady?

"It is hard to tell because the story has not totally been unveiled yet," said Christophe Barbier, a political analyst. "It seems that Hollande's heart is leaning toward Julie Gayet but according to the √?lys√©e Palace's website, Valerie Trieweiler is still presented as the first lady."

In the United States, political analysts would be loath to opine on the president's sex life. In France, the subject is fair game. Such scandals are not new - former president Francois Mitterrand, for instance, had a daughter with his mistress.

The French first lady does not have the same official status as her counterpart in the United States. When asked recently if France should formalize the position, the former head of the opposition Union for a Popular Movement Party, Alain Juppe, joked that the country would have to "create a status for the first lady and for the second lady as well."

Recent surveys of Hollande's popularity - at a record-low for French presidents because of his ham-fisted oversight of the economy - show no immediate change since the affair was revealed.

But political commentator Geoffroy Clavel said the media buzz surrounding the love affair could derail Hollande's political agenda. At a recent press conference where the president announced a major policy to address France's anemic economy, the first question from reporters was about the affair.

"This sentimental drama creates a media explosion which eclipses any political discourse," Clavel said.

Some expressed stronger sentiments.

"It is just shameful in a country crippled by an economic crisis, rising unemployment, youth without jobs, that he is busy keeping a mistress - it is indecent," said Elsa Perkins, 60, of Paris. "Meanwhile, what he did to Valerie Trieweiller is like a public stoning. How does he treat France's first lady? How will he treat the second lady?"

Hollande's scandal isn't the first time in recent history a French president's love life has troubled the relationship with the public.

Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Cecilia, left him shortly after he was elected. Pictures of her and her lover, businessman Richard Attias, were splashed on the front page of French weekly magazine Paris Match. A few months later, Sarkozy married Italian supermodel-cum-pop-star Carla Bruni. The episode damaged the former president in the polls, say analysts.

"Sarkozy exposed himself to situations that were a bit vulgar which coincided with his landslide drop in the polls between 2007 and 2008," Clavel said.

While French people "are not prudish" and have no qualms electing a divorced president, they expect their statesmen to spend time governing, not massaging their public image via their love lives, Clavel said.

"It is not his sentimental life which will affect the popularity of a president but his ability to show that he is up to the job," he said.

The close relationship between the press and politicians helps fuel such debacles, Clavel said.

"The politicians are in part responsible for this because they themselves expose more and more of their private lives as a tool to boost their image," he added.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's second family was kept secret until near the end of his 14 years in office. Many journalists knew but no one dared write about it. Throughout his presidency, Mitterrand lived officially with his wife, Danielle, but he spent almost every night with his mistress Anne Pingeot and his daughter, Mazarine, in an apartment across the river from the √?lys√©e Palace.

In 1994, Mitterrand orchestrated the disclosure of his double-life and of his then 14-year-old daughter in a bid to shift the public's attention away from a potentially damaging investigation into his past links with the Petain government during World War II.

"He never appeared at the same time as his daughter so there was never an opportunity to shoot pictures," Barbier said. "Then he negotiated the date and the style with Paris Match and made a quick appearance with her. It worked. He was in control."

Following the Mitterrand episode, the French media have been more aggressive in covering the private lives of their leaders. French presidents, in turn, have sought to manipulate the press interest in their own interests. It's a strategy that can backfire.

"Francois Mitterrand had a talent for these kinds of things which obviously Francois Hollande lacks," Barbier said.

Contributing: Aida Alami from Paris



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: President's affair tests French tolerance for paramours

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