News & Politics

UPDATE: Washington Eagerly, if Quietly, Anticipates Impact of Hollande Romantic Scandal

With a state visit only weeks away, the French President announces he has parted from his longtime girlfriend.

President Hollande is due to visit Washington soon. Photograph by Flickr user Jean-Marc Ayrault.

UPDATE 01/27/14: In an interview with the Agence France Press on Saturday, January 25, President François Hollande said that his relationship with his girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, had ended. “I am making it known that I have put an end to my shared life with Valerie Trierwiler,” he told the AFP in a phone call. He did not mention the visit to the United States, scheduled for February 11, but it is expected he will come without a companion, other than the members of his official party. Read the original story below.

So much of political life is about timing. French President François Hollande has landed in the middle of a juicy romantic scandal less than a month away from a state visit to Washington with his longtime girlfriend, Valérie Trierweiler, by his side. Or will she be? Right now that’s a mystery, but one American and French protocol officials want resolved as soon as possible.

At a long-scheduled news conference on Tuesday in Paris, Hollande was asked, according to the Guardian, “Is Valerie Trierweiler still France’s First Lady?” He indicated he would not answer that question at the news conference but “will do so by the deadline,” presumably a reference to his Washington visit. He also said, according to the Guardian, “Everyone in their personal life can encounter difficulties. They are tough moments. Private matters should be treated in private.” (Updated 11:32 AM.)

Trierweiler, who lives with Hollande in the Elysée Palace and is considered France’s unofficial First Lady, is in a French hospital, recovering from what the Elysée Palace so elegantly confirmed as a gros coup de blues. In other words, heartbreak after hearing reports that Hollande was having an affair with French actress Julie Gayet.

Is the affair for real? That remains to be seen, but still the air of scandal threatens to follow Hollande to Washington.

It all started last week with a photo in the French magazine Closer. No one has said absolutely, but studious journalists noted that a man photographed in the sidecar of a motorcycle, hidden under a helmet, wore the same shoes Hollande wears, and that the driver of the motorcycle was Hollande’s bodyguard. The motorcycle dropped the helmeted man at an apartment building where Hollande and Gayet allegedly rendezvous, a building that has since been linked to the Corsican mafia.

Since Hollande’s popularity is currently so low, his advisers want him to deal with the scandal now, well before the state visit to Washington, during which he and Trierweiler are scheduled to attend a formal state dinner hosted by President and Mrs. Obama.

What does this mean to Washington? For the State Department office of protocol, the White House social office, and the French Embassy it means public calm to mask private concern. Sources indicate the day-to-day is being watched closely. Much goes into the planning of a state visit, and since Trierweiler would be given the courtesies of a First Lady, she would likely have her own agenda. This can sometimes mean private social events or public tours to areas of interest in the city, such as schools or museums.

The most prominent part of the visit, however, is the state dinner. What if Trierweiler backs out? “Clearly the office would have to prepare a backup seating plan, so that there is no empty seat,” says Beth Ann Newton, editor of The Green Book, which serves as Washington’s social directory and guide to questions of official protocol. While Newton couldn’t address what an absent Trierweiler would mean in terms of media sensation, she said the rules of etiquette and protocol help guide planners through a difficult situation.

The well-known Washington etiquette expert Judith Martin, who writes a syndicated column as “Miss Manners,” points out how times have changed. “Back in the day the White House had to deal with polygamous monarchs,” she says. “The monarch would be asked to choose one of his wives.”

As for the current romantic brouhaha, “it’s up to them to decide what to do,” Martin says of Hollande and Trierweiler. “He doesn’t have to bring a date if he doesn’t want to.” Washington, more or less, has to stand on the sidelines. “The American government would be very amiss trying to tell them, ‘Straighten up your love life before you get here.’”

Martin, a seasoned journalist, acknowledges the sensation factor that could accompany Hollande to Washington, with or without Trierweiler. But the etiquette mentioned by Newton keeps the ship of state afloat.

“The scandal is very amusing to people who don’t have to work with it and hard on the people who do,” says Martin. “But there’s a great difference between public curiosity and official recognition. Unless [Hollande] brings it up, you [the White House, State Department, French Embassy] should stay away from it. Just just go about planning your dinner. There is an expression: ‘Too polite to notice.’”