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Book tells of private misery of France’s ‘first ladies’

© AFP: Yvonne de Gaulle, Claude Pompidou, Anne-Aymone Giscard d'Estaing, Danielle Mitterrand, Bernadette Chirac, Cecilia Sarkozy, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-08-16

The wives of French presidents have been birds in the gilded cage of the Elysée Palace, according to a new book, which tells of their boredom, frustration and feelings of being sidelined by a role that has no official recognition in France.

‘Premières Dames’, written in French by author Robert Schneider, describes the Elysée period of the lives of presidential wives including Danielle Mitterrand, Bernadette Chirac, Yvonne de Gaulle, Claude Pompidou and Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing. It covers both of Nicolas Sarkozy’s wives-in-office - Cecilia Sarkozy and Carla Bruni - as well as Valérie Trierweiler, the former partner of current president François Hollande.

Extracts from the book, published in the news magazine Le Point on Thursday, told of several incumbents’ disdain for the role. Madame Giscard d’Estaing, asked what she wished for now that she was first lady, said tartly, “Not to be.” Bernadette Chirac advised Cecilia Sarkozy to flee “this palace of ice”. Cecilia did, after only five months, saying, “First lady, I’m sick of it.”

Cecilia left despite the fact that, according to Schneider, she was the wife who wielded the most political influence. She advised on ministerial appointments including, most controversially, helping her friend Rachida Dati become justice minister.

At one point she opposed the nomination of a particular candidate for defence minister, arguing that he should be appointed immigration minister. “Less prestigious and more risky,” writes Schneider. “Nicolas agreed. Before reaching the Elysée, he had said many times, ‘If I am elected, my wife will play a role.’ It was the best way to hold on to her, he thought.”

Kept out of the picture

At the other end of the wifely-power continuum was Bernadette Chirac, who was left out of publicity about the family and was not permitted, despite her pleas, to watch the 1998 World Cup Final from the presidential box in the French stadium where it was held. “The president is a widower,” she said. “I am nobody.”

She coolly made her displeasure known with what Schneider describes as a “spectacular” snub: two days later, there was a garden party for the victorious French team and she refused to go. “As I wasn’t there to see them, I won’t be there to receive them,” she said.

The Mitterrands had their rows too. Danielle, a strong socialist activist, infuriated her husband by continuing to campaign for her human rights foundation while in the Elysée. She signed an open letter to the presidents of France and Algeria condemning a massacre of students in Algiers in 1991.

He railed at her, “You’ve stabbed me in the back, and your friends from the humanitarian organisations are leftist hotheads who don’t know what they’re talking about!” She responded by pointing out that she was simply espousing exactly the same values for which he had previously stood.

Accepting a prize on his behalf in Washington in 1993, she took the opportunity to denounce the “pitiless embargo” that was strangling Cubans. After that, French ambassadors were discreetly warned to keep her on a leash during foreign visits but, writes Schneider, “Mitterrand knew better than anyone: it is difficult to tie down Danielle.”

Date created : 2014-08-16

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