Paris awoke Friday to the heady whiff of déjà vu: So-called revelations that a French leader has a secret lady friend. Closer Magazine, in a cover story entitled “The President’s Secret Love,” splashed seven pages worth of photos—that leave essentially everything to the imagination—claiming to prove persisting rumors of an affair between François Hollande, 59, and the French film and TV actress Julie Gayet, 41.
By dawn, President Hollande had hit back, threatening legal action for breach of privacy. Political allies and rivals alike are lending support in the name of respecting public figures’ private lives, from Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to far-right spitfire Marine Le Pen. Hollande’s partner Valérie Trierweiler, 48, meanwhile, officially at the president’s side as recently as Tuesday, has issued no comment.
It takes quite a leap of faith to see Closer’s photos as gotcha pics. Many are evidently taken from an upper-floor window by paparazzi staking out the rue du Cirque, a block from the Élysée Palace, by night. The photos purport to show a secret overnight visit by Hollande to his alleged paramour on Dec. 30. The man in question, never clearly identifiable under a motorcycle helmet with a foggy visor, is shown arriving on the back of a Piaggio three-wheeled scooter and ostensibly being driven away on the same scooter the next morning. Another woman, shown separately, resembles Gayet, who has featured in more than 50 films. Another man, who looks like one of Hollande’s longtime bodyguards, is supposed to be the lookout and brings what Closer interprets as croissants to the alleged love-nest the morning after.
The captions have that jarring omniscient-narrator tone germane to tabloids. “It is always Julie who arrives first in the apartment where they usually meet," one reads. “The telephone close at hand, her heart beating, she waits…”
As a rule, French voters do not consider extracurricular matters of the heart—even ones alleged with clearer evidence —a firing offense. But the mere distraction of Closer’s purported exclusive is already the last thing Hollande needs.
Next Tuesday, the president will host hundreds of reporters for his bi-annual press conference. He plans to detail new economic measures he laid out in his televised New Year’s Eve address, including his “Responsibility Pact,” a plan to slash businesses’ labor costs in exchange for new hiring—a proposal that earned a rare thumbs up in fresh polling. But it will be lost on no one that former President Nicolas Sarkozy, after romancing a supermodel-turned-popstar over his Christmas holidays in 2007, used the same January press conference to announce, “Between me and Carla [Bruni], it’s serious stuff.” (Indeed, within a month, Bruni and Sarkozy were married.)
In fairness, like glossies anywhere, French tabloids are fallible, prone to playing up alleged trysts that fall flat. Tabloids were giddy with a non-starter in 2010 that Sarkozy and Bruni were shagging a cabinet minister and singer, respectively. But uncomfortable —and arguably impertinent—questions are now fair game.
French media have been quick to flag the potentially awkward moments on Hollande’s upcoming calendar: A visit to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis later this month and a trip to Washington in February, a state visit Trierweiler is slated to join. Perhaps critically, before key nationwide municipal elections in March, when voters would like nothing more than to see Hollande sort out the jobs’ crisis, hanky-panky has just squeezed onto reporters’ agendas.
Hollande won the presidency in 2012 pledging, curiously, to be a “normal” president. That apparently lackluster promise was a shorthand snipe at Sarkozy, whose just-divorced playboy courtship of Bruni on a Red Sea holiday in 2007 irreparably dismayed compatriots who bristled at his thing for bling.
Secret love affairs might, in fact, count as normal in French politics. Indeed, Socialist President François Mitterrand famously kept a secret family on the books during his 14-year presidency. The characteristically discreet, never-married Hollande himself waited years to make his relationship with Trierweiler official in 2010, as many as five years after the couple reportedly took up together. Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, ran for president in 2007 with most outside Paris’s political beltway unaware the power couple had split. But Hollande’s liaison ultimately didn’t hurt him at the ballot box.
Indeed, the red line seems set, in tough economic times, at whether a dalliance suggests a flashy lifestyle or date-money plundered from the public purse—a point Le Pen was quick to make Friday in an interview on the i-Télé channel.
Gayet, meanwhile, hasn’t quite been reveling in the rumors. (Local cinemas might be kicking themselves, however; Gayet’s latest film, the low-budget romantic comedy Les Ames de Papier, released Christmas Day, is no longer screening in Paris.) In March, Gayet filed a complaint for breach of privacy over the Hollande allegations. And late Friday, Closer announced that it would yank them, at least from its website, on Gayet’s request. Still, the weekly told Reuters it stands by the story.
Le Figaro reports, ironically, that Gayet is currently working as a French voice double on Olivier Dahan’s upcoming biopic of Grace Kelly, the actress-turned-princess-of-Monaco romanced by a head of state. So, life imitating art imitating life? Or has this merely been a futile one-day bounce in French tabloid sales? A suivre…