Bernadette Chirac, wife of former French president Jacques Chirac, said Wednesday it was ‘ridiculous’ that a head of state's wife or partner – in this case Valérie Trierweiler – should be considered France’s “First Lady”.
In a long and frank interview on Europe 1 radio’s breakfast programme, Mrs Chirac, 80, whose husband served as France’s head of state from 1995 to 2007, said she felt overwhelming sympathy for current President François Hollande’s partner Valérie Trierweiler.
Trierweiler, a journalist for Paris Match magazine, checked herself into a private clinic suffering from “exhaustion” following revelations in French gossip magazine Closer that 59-year-old Hollande had been having an affair with actress Julie Gayet, who is 18 years his junior.
She stayed there, out of the public eye, for eight days before returning to the president’s official residence at La Lanterne, near Versailles on the outskirts of Paris.
And at a major annual press conference held on January 14, just days after Closer broke the story, Figaro journalist Alain Barluet asked Hollande: “Do the French need clarification, ahead of your forthcoming trip to Washington [in February ], as to whether Valérie Trierweiler is still France’s First Lady?”
Refusing to be drawn on questions on his – or Trierweiler’s – private life, Hollande promised that there would be answers before his visit to the USA, where President Barack Obama’s wife Michelle holds a very official position as spouse to the head of state.
French presidents’ wives have never held the official status of “First Lady”. Nevertheless, the expectation that they should travel, and be seen with, their betrothed (Hollande has never been married), has grown over the years.
For Bernadette Chirac, a line needs to be drawn to separate, definitively, the role of presidential spouse from any notion of an official role representing the country.
“At the very least, she would need a secretary to handle the considerable volume of correspondence,” she said. “But official ‘First Lady’ status is ridiculous. It is the president who is elected, no one else.
“If the president happens to be married, so much the better, for him and for the French,” she added, admitting that there was an expectation for presidents’ wives to “make themselves useful somehow”.
Mrs Chirac certainly made herself useful, campaigning with her husband before and during his two mandates and is still reaping the benefits from her high-profile – though unofficial – position as wife to a former president.
As well as being the head of various health and children’s charities, she remains an elected member of the Corrèze regional council despite her age.
Date created : 2014-01-22