Saturday, 19 May 2012

France's shameful treatment of its First Ladies

Screengrab from the Dail Mail (where else?)
Whatever else can be said about the petty and spiteful campaign which is grinding into gear against Valérie Trierweiler, François Hollande's girlfriend, it is surely safe to assume that she must have been expecting it. After all, the whole world and its dog knows that being a first lady in France these days automatically means having to put up with a permanent onslaught of snickering remarks, juvenile jibes and gratuitous slurs, and this first lady, like all of her recent predecessors, shall not be spared from them either.

You'd have to go back to the early Nineties and Danielle Mitterand to find a first lady who was not subjected to ridicule and insult, and this was partially due to the fact that her husband had an illegitimate child with another woman, so when the story came out one would have had to have a heart of stone not to sympathise with her. She was also the first president's wife under the Fifth Republic to refuse to remain anonymously in the shadow of her husband and her hard work for those in need won the admiration of many.

But although France's love affair with her was the first of its kind, it would also prove to be the last, as Jacques Chirac's wife found out to her cost.

Q. What does Bernadette Chirac do with her old dresses?
A. She wears them.

That well worn French bar joke may not have been excessively insulting compared to what happens today, but it does demonstrate that France had decided not to give her an easy ride. Why this was so is difficult to understand, and despite her rather traditional manner of dressing, she, like Mitterand, worked hard to make herself useful to her country instead of swanning around the Elysée like a wannabe queen.

She was elected as a public official for the first time in 1971, and has been an elected representative of the Corrèze region ever since. An active member of several associations formed to help young people even before her husband was elected president, she was also a founder member of the 'Pièces Jaunes' charity, which collected small change and used it to provide children in hospitals with better facilities. The charity is still active today.

So what went wrong? Theories abound of course, but the fact is that she quickly became the butt of many harsh remarks which were for the most part centered upon what was perceived as her old-fashioned style. The TV satire show 'Les Guignols' gave her a merciless drubbing, depicting her as a nagging old bore who spent all day sat in an armchair clutching her handbag, and her small change charity was ridiculed. Although none of this was truly nasty, it certainly installed a climate in which first ladies were accepted as being fair game for undeserved criticism, and the trend took a vicious turn for the worse in 2007.

Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz bacame Nicolas Sarkozy's second wife in 1996, and she was heavily involved in the successful campaign which ensured that he became president in 2007. This seemingly-idyllic situation didn't last long however and she was crucified by France's highly macho press and society when it was revealed that she had had an affair in 2005, although, and by way of contrast, having an affair - and an illegitimate child - did nothing to harm François Mitterand's reputation, on the contrary. 'Whore', 'slut', 'bitch', nothing was too unkind, and she was constantly pilloried from then on.

She tried to battle on however, and must have thought she would be at least partially exonerated for her past 'crime' when, in July 2007, she almost single-handedly secured the release of 5 Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been sentenced to death in Libya for allegedly infecting babies with HIV deliberately. But she had not counted upon the cowardly willingness of the Socialists, who, uniquely to get at Sarkozy, demanded a parliamentary inquiry into what she had done, accusing her of not respecting 'protocols.' The press and public followed suit, and she was roundly condemned for her 'arrogance' and 'wanting to hog the limelight.' To France's eternal shame, almost nobody tried to defend her by pointing out that she had, after all, most probably saved these people's lives and that her doing so depended precisely upon her having the courage to step outside of dusty diplomatic protocol, roll her sleeves up, and get the job done. But all that was to no avail, it was time for her to go, and go she did when she and Sarkozy divorced later that year.

Next up to the plate, of course, was Carla Bruni, who was doomed from the start thanks to a combination of her intelligence, good looks, and Sarkozy's massive unpopularity. Many males in this male-dominated country were soon showing their schizophrenic approach to women by secretly wishing they could sleep with her on one hand, and calling her a 'pop star's hooker' and a 'nymphomaniac' on the other. Women joined in the chorus of course, doubtless seething at the fact that a woman could do what they never managed to do, which was to be an independent person.

I remember watching one of the many anti-Sarkozy demonstrations by schoolchildren and students which occured here in Lyon during Sarkozy's presidency, and hearing them chant "Carla Carla, we're just like you, we too get fucked by the president." A new low. Her impeccable performance at a state ceremony in the presence of the Queen of England, which was largely praised by the British press, resulted in a chorus of "well if the British love her so much they can have her." Like her predecessors, Bruni too was (still is) highly committed to causes such as children in need, HIV research and others, and she was an ambassador to the U.N. on these issues. However, that didn't stop the stream of vitriol which followed the publication of a nude shot of her taken back in her modelling days, and nor did it stop a French company selling a range of bags with that image on them. Bruni successfully sued the company concerned. Bruni's treatment at the hands of France was petty, shoddy, and rather seedy in character.

But we have a new president now, and that means a new first lady, Valérie Treirweiler. A Sorbonne political science graduate, she was well known for years as a pugnacious TV political talk-show host with no particular enemies. But that was before she met and began a relationship with François Hollande, and her sin was to have begun her affair at the tail end of Hollande's relationship with Ségolène Royal, in 2006, although their relationship with Hollande wasn't made official until October 2010.

The first sign that she was not liked in some circles came in October 2011 when French weekly L'Express published a story which alleged that her past life was the object of a secret investigation by the Intelligence branch of the Paris police. She sued 'a person or persons unknown' for illegally collecting information on her, and the ensuing investigation concluded that the file on her past life was a forgery. Investigations are ongoing as of today, but the ball was already rolling.

Various rumours and insults began turning up on blogs and in the press, and the spotlight on her became even harsher in intensity as the presidential elections approached. Her no-nonsense approach to her support of Hollande's campaign irked many of the male campaign team, and she soon became known as 'The Rottweiler.' Relatively benign it may have been as criticism, but a hapless sports journalist who used that epithet in a sexist tweet about her soon found out that she could indeed bite, and hard. Phone calls were made, things were said, and the journalist was fired.

Trierweiler got herself in the news again just after Hollande's election, when well-known socialist Deputé Julien Drey turned up at campaign headquarters to congratulate Hollande on his victory. He didn't even manage to get past the door because she, upon seeing him, booted him out in unceremonious fashion. His error had been to invite DSK to his birthday bash between the two rounds of voting, thereby embarrassing Hollande just at the moment when Sarkozy was catching up in the polls. She went from Rottweiller to bitch and dragon in a blink of the press and Internet's eye.

All this media exposure finally came to the attention of Samantha Brick, who gave her a roasting in the Daily Mail. Accusing Trierweiler (and all French women along with her, but that's by-the-by) of being a brazen man-stealer who sees "nothing wrong in long-term and persistant infidelity", Brick amply demonstrated that it's not just men who dislike French first ladies. This story was picked up by French left-wing online daily RUE89, who published a rather forgiving if vaguely ironic article about Brick's piece under the headline "In praise of French women - sluts", thus throwing more fuel and innuendo onto the flames.

So here we are, less than two weeks after the election, and the French tradition of slagging off first ladies seems set to continue.Treirweiler has all the ingredients to ensure that a long-lasting campaign of denigration and insult will be aimed at her, and she hasn't seen anything yet. France's treatment of its first ladies is no credit to French society and it highlights the more machist and sexist attitudes that persist even today in this Catholic and Latin country, which, while pardoning men for their infidelities, violently dislikes any woman who even has the temerity to assert herself in public, never mind change partners.

One last thought. Not only has nothing been written about the fact that it takes two to tango, which means that Hollande too was guilty of 'infidelity', the French, whilst disliking her, actually respect him enough to vote him in as president. But he's a man of course.....

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