Have the French elite nothing better to offer the people than re-runs of personal soap operas?
After more than six weeks silence, France’s incorrigible First Girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler returned to Twitter over the weekend. She wanted to reassure her 135,000 plus ‘dear friends’ (ie ‘followers’) that all was going well – and that her boyfriend had just delivered a ‘magnificent’ and ‘moving’ speech.
Normally this is not news. However, the companion of freshly installed Socialist President Francois Hollande has guaranteed that her comments of 140 characters or less on the social media site are front-page material.
The frenzied attention dates back to June, when the Paris Match journalist, and twice-divorced mother of three Tweeted in favour of a renegade Socialist running for parliamentary election against her boyfriend’s ex.
The seemingly crazed act – publicly going against the President’s endorsement for the official candidate Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children – exposed Trierweiler to legitimate accusations she was twisted by jealousy. More importantly, days out from a key legislative ballot, she had shattered the new head of state’s brief political honeymoon with an unseemly fit of pique directed at her love rival.
If that all sounds unbearably Dynasty or Dallas at the Elysee Palace, that’s because it is.
Despite all his protestations to the contrary and a painstakingly constructed Monsieur Normal serious image, designed to contrast with the vanquished Nicolas Sarkozy’s bling-bling attitude, erratic politics and constant appearances in the gossip magazines, Hollande is now one half of the most ridiculed celebrity couple in France.
It is difficult to underestimate the damage inflicted on Hollande’s presidency, and the significant loss of statesman status by the gaffes of his Twitter-happy girlfriend, or the ‘First Journalist of France’, as satirical investigative weekly Le canard enchainé labels the woman who said she was ‘embarrassed’ by the title ‘Première Dame’ (First Lady).
The President and his ex Royal have called time on Tweetgate, trying to deflect questions and move on to fresh topics. But the story won’t go away, especially when Hollande’s own children are so furious they refuse to see Trierweiler and have been quoted publicly decrying her behaviour in the press.
Tweetgate caused a scandal in French media and political circles, but the repercussions are going to be felt for a long time to come, because in his typical fashion, Hollande has failed to resolve the problem.
The difference with Nicolas Sarkozy, whose second marriage ended in his first year as president was that once he realised the French were thoroughly sick of his roller-coaster love-life and penchant for ostentatious holidays, he swiftly married Carla Bruni-Sarkozy in secret. He then largely shielded his private life, including the birth of their daughter last year, from the public.
You don’t have to be right-wing or even family values-oriented to see that so many of Hollande’s problems could have been avoided if he had married his girlfriend, and settled the problem of exactly what status she has in a Palace that has supplied her with an office with four staff (twice as much as her predecessor). Marriage would have been pure political opportunism, but at least it would have allowed President Hollande to do the things that French Presidents are supposed to do, like run the country, untrammelled by constant distractions posed by his chaotic home life.
The Trierweiler trainwreck was a disaster always waiting to happen. The rot set in back in 2005 when Trierweiler, a political journalist covering the Socialists, and Hollande first began their affair (hardly a high point for independent journalism). This prompted Royal to run for the presidency, unsuccessfully, in 2007. The affair was an open secret in political circles, and almost tore the Socialist party apart as the leading figures as its centre were at personal and political war.
In 2012, no political observers imagined that Hollande’s women and their rivalry could once again become a driving force in Socialist politics.
For all their holier-than-thou pronouncements about the vulgar behaviour of Sarkozy and his messy family affairs (two ex-wives and four children from three different women) the Socialists are the ones battling the accusations of unseemly behaviour, conflicts of interest and even criminal sexual behaviour (notably with Dominique Strauss-Kahn).
Hollande is now being openly criticised for playing along with his 'Madame Pompadour' companion, in the role of the monarch. He recently appointed an official photographer to the Elysee Palace for the first time in French history, prompting the speculation of many in the media that he, or perhaps his girlfriend had King Louis and Marie-Antoinette complex.
In any event, the Socialists only a month into their absolute majority are showing a tendency to behave at least in personal terms as an unaccountable elite, whose members all went to the same top Grandes Ecoles and therefore protect each other.
This is the most disturbing aspect of this scandal. It once again shows that France is being run by a republican aristocracy that lives by the moral standards of a bad soap opera, and that French voters are happy with the status quo.
French politics, civil service and business are dominated by a tight-knit coterie of graduates of prestigious graduate schools called the Grandes Ecoles. At the pinnacle of these is the École Nationale d'Administration. The ENA produces only about 100 graduates every year. Top bureaucratic posts are reserved for the best students, which means you can’t have much of a shot at running France unless you went to this school. The private sector is also dominated by the Grandes Ecoles kids, who hail mostly from Paris’s best lycees.
The best aspect of this system is the fact that it is publicly funded and therefore poses little financial burden on students admitted. For a long time it did allow significant numbers of children of the poor and modest backgrounds to have a chance at world-class education, and entree into the top professions. There is no comparison with the US, where Ivy League universities put students of most backgrounds except the super-rich into heavy debt structured almost along sub-prime levels.
Sadly, today in France the ‘social elevator’ is no longer working, as the system once so egalitarian, left un-reformed, has ossified into an inert bureaucratic machine that serves the children of the ruling educated class. Typically a third or a half of the French ministers in every administration, are “énarques”. Seven of the past 12 prime ministers have been énarques. Francois Hollande is an enarque; Segolene Royal is an enarque, the current foreign minister. Laurent Fabius, is an enarque – and so on (Sarkozy was famously a lawyer from outside this system. He hated ENA, and tried to open up its closed selection and bureaucratic appointments system, to staunch opposition from the Socialists and centre-right alumni).
It is within this Potemkin village for the elite and their camp followers that links are forged with future spouses and future partners. Add to that the potent mix of the Paris politico-media complex, where journalists and political heavyweights are often literally in bed with each other, and you have an almost-secret society controlling politics -- and to some extent business -- media and culture, and to which admission is extremely tightly controlled.
It makes one question whether France’s rulers are really in touch with the people whom they serve. The nation’s problem are enormous: a sagging economy, rising unemployment, declining standard of living, racism, threats from right-wing politicians… The list is long.
No doubt this sordid storm will blow over and Mr Hollande will preside from the Élysée Palace with the regal hauteur of his predecessors (or most of them). But the French electorate must surely wonder whether its politicians are living on the same planet, or whether, like Le Petit Prince, they are just visitors from another world gaping without comprehension at the marvels of ordinary lives of working people.
Emma-Kate Symons is a regular columnist with the Australian Financial Review. She covered the 2012 French elections for the AFR and is based in Bangkok and Paris.