French book lifts lid on presidential 'ménage à trois'
A new book dishes the dirt on the bitter feud between President Hollande’s former partner Ségolène Royal and first lady Valérie Trierweiler. The juicy details of the drama threaten to engulf France’s president and have the French public hooked.
From the first pages of ‘Entre Deux Feux’ (Between Two Fires), a new book about the bitter rivalry between President François Hollande’s former partner - French Socialist Party heavyweight Ségolène Royal and first lady Valérie Trierweiler - authors Anna Cabana and Anne Rosencher set readers up to expect an epic drama with plot twists so brazen they appear to be a work of fiction.
Indeed, the exposé describes a decade-long feud between the two women who have been closest to France’s most powerful man and the passions and betrayals that arise from this high stakes love triangle. The book reads more like the work of a novelist than established journalists – which Cabana and Rosencher undoubtedly are.
The story begins and ends with an episode that is already infamous in France: a message sent by first lady Trierweiler on the micro-blogging website Twitter, in which she endorsed dissident Socialist Party candidate Olivier Falorni a few days ahead of France’s June 2012 legislative elections. Falorni was running against Ségolène Royal, the candidate endorsed by the party and Hollande, but the rebel MP eventually won the contest.
Royal was already struggling against Falorni in the runoff poll, and many think Trierweiler’s tweet was the final nail in the coffin for her campaign; the act not only destroyed Royal’s chances of winning the race but also her coveted dream of becoming president of the National Assembly.
But Trierweiler’s transgression had an even darker consequence for Hollande, who repeatedly assured voters that he would, unlike predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, keep his personal life out of the public sphere. With one tweet, the Royal-Trierweiler feud spilled over into a national election and onto the front pages of every French newspaper. One tweet destroyed the carefully crafted image of the self-dubbed “Mr Normal”, no drama president.
Like the Twitter incident, the rivalry between the two is common knowledge among the French public at large. However, Cabana and Rosencher’s book knits together the well-known events with fresh scoops and explains a broader tale about political ambitions and romantic jealousy. Readers will learn, with shock and guilty pleasure, that the twitter scandal is only the tip of the iceberg.
Who’s in charge?
The book’s chapters are organised around a handful of tense encounters and standoffs between Hollande, Royal and Trierweiler. Through new interviews with the main protagonists and their confidants, the authors shed new light on this bitter feud.
Chapter six is by far the most jaw dropping part of the book. It is set in the western city of Rennes in April 2012, at a massive rally at the height of Hollande’s presidential campaign. The book says that because of Trierweiler’s all-consuming jealousy, Hollande avoided at all costs being photographed with his former partner during the race. In Rennes, campaign spokesman Manuel Valls, was given the unenviable task of heading off any encounters between the former lovers, thus neutralising any photo-op.
But the task proved too difficult. Royal gave the last warm-up speech before Hollande took to the stage in Rennes, and while she was forced to exit the floor before the presidential candidate appeared, Royal snuck back on stage. The waiting press pack quickly seized the opportunity to get the ‘money shot’ of the former couple side by side.
With a keen understanding of the French press, Trierweiler knew the picture would be splashed all over the front pages. Trierweiler was not about to let that be the highlight of the evening. She instructed Valls to direct photographers to take position near Royal’s seat in the conference centre, then, while Hollande delivered his keynote speech, she walked up to Royal and forced a handshake. In one bold move she gave editors another, equally striking image to consider.
While the book will likely be written off by many as a tabloid-like take on Hollande’s life and rise to power, the authors advance a serious question: is Trierweiler overstepping her bounds and influencing government policy?
Royal spoke to the book’s authors and told then that she was certain Trierweiller “wouldn’t allow” Hollande to pick her to head a government ministry. The book also suggests that Valls was given his interior minister post as a reward for his dirty work in Rennes and his allegiance to Trierweiler.
At Hollande’s victory rally in Paris’ iconic Place de la Bastille on May 6, France’s new president-elect once more found himself caught between the two women in his life. Waving to supporters, Hollande was surrounded by his campaign team and the Socialist Party elite. In the warmest gesture toward her in years, Hollande walked over to Royal and gave her a kiss on each cheek.
At that moment their difficult past seemed to be erased, but Trierweiler would not let the scene play out as such. When Hollande returned to stand beside his current flame, Trierweiler told him “kiss me on the lips”. He obliged, but, the book says, the smooch looked clumsy and television viewers clearly saw Trierweiler mouth her unusual order to the new president of France.
Finally, the authors back the theory that Royal, undeniably one of the most high profile figures in the Socialist Party, was barred from Hollande’s swearing in ceremony at Trierweiler’s behest. So that her exclusion would be less ostentatious, other Socialist Party notables were kept off the invitation list.
The good, the bad and Le President
Cabana and Rosencher make a half-hearted attempt at not taking sides in this high-level soap opera, but readers will find winners and losers in ‘Entre Deux Feux’.
In an episode dating back to 2002, Royal invites Trierweiler to her office at the National Assembly only to bark at her, “Don’t go near François or you will regret it!” At the time Trierweiler was a starry-eyed journalist who, through no design of her own, had become Hollande’s class pet among the press core. Sensing danger, Royal warned Trierweiler off.
A few years after this confrontation, Royal allegedly leaned on Trierweiler’s bosses at Paris Match to take the reporter off the Socialist Party beat and give her less visible assignments.
But even in the instances when Royal is cast in a less than becoming light, she comes off less like a bully than a woman fighting to save her relationship and political career. Above all we are presented with a woman who has learned to accept defeat, embarrassment and even betrayal, with grace.
The book has a few nice things to say about Trierweiler too. It clearly credits her with inspiring Hollande to go for the ‘top job’, when no one, least of all himself, believed it was possible. However, Trierweiler largely comes across as insecure, impetuous, scheming, and when necessary, malicious.
The authors question Trierweiler’s motivations for throwing her support behind Falorni with the Twitter endorsement. Was it because he had been a loyal friend to Hollande when everyone thought he was a politically washed up, or only because he was running against Royal?
Cabana and Rosencher recount how on two different occasions during Hollande’s presidential campaign Trierweiler stormed off back to Paris without telling anyone, in a fit after Hollande could not offer her any time alone.
However, the book also looks down on Hollande, portraying him as someone who constantly fails to accept responsibility in the affairs that intimately concern him. He comes across as a man who does not lack ambition, but who is pushed and pulled by others’ passions; a ship that without Royal or Trierweiler at the helm would be uselessly adrift.
Worse, the book argues, he constantly goes back on his promises: he publicly endorsed Royal in the legislative race after swearing to Trierweiler and Falorni he would not. He pledged to the French he would lead a more ‘normal’ presidency at the Elysée, in which his public and private life would be hermetically separated, and has arguably delivered everything but.
The book implies that the fiery duel that threatens to burn France’s president is far from over.
It also seems to herald the return of Royal, whose political comeback has been questioned by many. ‘Entre Deux Feux’ sets up her up to be a phoenix, rising from the ashes after the competing fires have consumed each other.