French president's 'Mr. Normal' image hit by tweet
Paris • A feud involving the French president's live-in girlfriend, his former partner and his eldest son may have tarnished the new leader's carefully cultivated image as "Mr. Normal" credited with helping him win the spring election among a populace weary of his flashy predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Francois Hollande agreed to take a question about the family feud that has riveted the media during a television interview Saturday a sign that in the Twitter era, even French leaders can't keep their private lives private.
But he sure did try.
Mid-way through the nationally televised interview on tradition-steeped Bastille Day, the reporters asked for his reaction to "tweetgate" as the feud is known. It began with a tweet sent out by his companion Valerie Trierweiler during last month's legislative elections. The tweet expressed support for the political opponent of his ex-partner Segolene Royal, the mother of the president's four children, who was defeated in her bid for a parliamentary seat.
Hollande may have agreed to take the question, but he quickly shut it down, saying that he intended to keep his public and private lives separate and that he had asked those close to him to do the same.
But it may be too late to put the genie back in the bottle, since the tweet has set the French political establishment aflame, and turned the president's image on its head.
Widely criticized as a vindictive move, the tweet went viral and dominated news shows.
"He campaigned for a clean break with Sarkozy, but it was a big mistake for Valerie, as it put his private life into public view," political communications expert Arnaud Mercier said in a telephone interview.
According to behind the scenes reports in the media, both Hollande and his children were furious, but all sides moved into a damage control operation and kept the feud under wraps.
Trierweiler has since kept a low profile. She was notably absent when Hollande visited with Queen Elizabeth II this week in London.
The Twitter account of Hollande's eldest son Thomas reads discreetly: "I don't plan on tweeting for the moment."
A low profile was maintained until this week when the 27-year-old Thomas broke his silence, speaking out against his father's companion's actions to the newsweekly Le Point, published on Wednesday
"I knew that something could come from [Valerie] one day, but not such a big knock. It's mind blowing," he was quoted as saying.
"It upset me for my father. He really hates it when his private life is spoken about," he said. Then he added what many were already thinking: "It destroyed the "Normal" image that he'd built up."
The Elysee tried to defuse the comments, saying on Friday that they were made during a "personal interview." Thomas Hollande has said some comments were taken out of context.
Despite those efforts to water down the remarks, "tweetgate" still dominates French media. Son Thomas' remarks are thought to have pushed his father into speaking out.
Since the Le Point article, Trierweiler has been spotted by Hollande's side in a clear show of unity. French media reported that Hollande allowed diners to take photographs during an intimate dinner with her at a swish Paris restaurant on Wednesday night. Trierweiler is also set to accompany him in engagements this weekend and next week.
On Saturday, she was in the front row of a grandstand set up to watch the Bastille Day military parade, though, like the companions of other French dignitaries, she did not sit next to her partner.
"This is really serious for him now. That's why he's going on TV," Mercier said.
Hollande answered the reporters' questions in Saturday's interview with his trademark good nature, but it was clear he didn't want to dwell.
"I am for a clear distinction between public life and private life and so I consider that private affairs should be sorted out in private," he said in the interview aired by broadcasters TF1 and France-2.
Sarkozy lost May's presidential election in large part because French voters grew tired of his very public private life, political pundits have said.
Conversely, a clear strength of Hollande, slightly portly and very discreet, was his Mr. Normal image.
Voters thought a Hollande presidency would spell the end of the Elysee family soap opera that saw Sarkozy divorce and take a new wife, haute-couture model turned singer, Carla Bruni, while president.
Commentators are now saying that history is repeating itself.
"He only beat Sarkozy by a small percentage, [owing to] his non-bling, private image ... Now he seems no different than Sarkozy, caught between two women," said Mercier.
The colorful amorous exploits of French leaders is nothing new.
For instance, Francois Mitterrand, French president from 1981 to 1995, had a secret daughter with a mistress.
But the French media, who have made it a point of honor to be protective of politicians' private lives, kept Mitterrand's exploits out of the papers.
In today's world, however, politicians' every public move is now under the scrutiny of smart phones and Twitter, and maintaining privacy is harder than ever even in France.
"It's for sure we're in an era where the private life of public people is more and more exposed with new media," said Diane-Monique Adjanonhoun, a political marketing strategist.
For Adjanonhoun, "tweetgate" signals the end of the era of politician's privacy.
"Presidents now are breaking with Mitterrand's time... We used to be a private country. But now, whether conscious or unconscious, France is no exception."