Like all great nations, the French have acquired a series of stereotypes that have a greater or lesser amount of observable truth going for them. One of these has been around since the nineteenth century, which is that its politicians all have semi-official mistresses. They are chosen from the ranks of the “grandes horizontals,” which reveals a Paris, for all its present economic woes, that still appears to be rich.
Much of that is due to the literature of the age. The best-known French novelists of the nineteenth century, Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola, both put courtesans at the center of their fiction; women whose beauty and wit were their living. Zola’s Nana (1880), based on the beautiful Blanche d’Antigny (among others), saw its heroine die of smallpox; her face ravaged by pustules. Dumas also killed off his heroine painfully in La Dame aux Camelias (1848; and the source for Verdi’s La Traviata). But Guy de Maupassant’s Bel Ami (1885) has the handsome hero, Georges Duroy, rise through society to a position of power and wealth aided by affairs with the wives of powerful men — a kind of male “grand horizontal.” Though Zola and Dumas both gave a conventionally grisly ending to their sinful heroines, they clearly sympathized with them. Maupassant was famously “immoral” for using a prostitute in his Boule de Suif (1880) to show that she is superior in character to the disapproving bourgeois men and women who surround her.
In Britain, Russia and the U.S., sexuality was generally disguised in nineteenth century literature. Thus, France’s reputation as a country at ease with male and female sexuality passed into the shorthand image of the country — a place where “Oo la la!” and “cherchez la femme!” were thought to be the most common sayings, and the Folies Bergeres was the leading Parisian theater.
This image has been supported by the view that the French are indifferent to the sexual shenanigans of their leaders, regarding these either as private matters or as so commonplace that it would be tedious to take an interest in them. But, in our own times, sexual explicitness and overt displays of sexuality in the formerly prudish U.S. and Britain have damaged the French sexual exceptionalism. Now the sophisticated motto “qui se soucie?” (“Who cares?”) has suffered as well. The French president has a mistress, and the French, it seems, do care.
President Francois Hollande, 59, has never married. He had a decades-long relationship with the Socialist politician Segolene Royale, with whom he had four children. Since 2007, his partner, the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been regarded as the first lady, with an office in the Elysee Palace and a staff of five. Last weekend, as the coverage developed about an affair between Hollande and the actor Julie Gayet, Trierweiler was reported in the hospital, suffering from exhaustion. Now Trierweiler is asking that the situation be “clarified.”