Why you should care
Because as Descartes once said, “It is good to know something of the customs of other people in order to judge more soundly of our own.”
When French president Francois Hollande attends his first state dinner at the White House tonight, the specter of his racy sex life will trail behind him like a whiff of pungent French perfume. The press has been buzzing with news about how the White House will receive Hollande when he shows up at the festivities “stag.”
It’s one thing to participate in such pomp and circumstance without a first lady — and quite another when that first lady was never really a first wife. Or a second or third wife, for that matter. How should the world, never mind the White House, frame what’s perceived by many as a faux pas of a particularly French variety?
How should the world, never mind the White House, frame what’s perceived by many as a faux pas of a particularly French variety?
Even when Hollande was still involved with Valerie Trierweiler, his girlfriend until just recently, and before news broke of his affair with the actress Julie Gayet — a scandal that sent Trierweiler to the hospital in the throes of a supposed breakdown and much to the delight of enthralled international media — French first lady protocol was already problematic, since Hollande and Trierweiler were not married.
This presented a social etiquette problem and, to some extent, a moral issue, particularly in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia. But Trierweiler, twice married and divorced and a well-established French journalist and mother of three teenagers, downplayed the issue. “I’m not sure it will come up all that much,” she told Agence France-Press. “Maybe when visiting the pope? Frankly, it is not really something that bothers me. This question of marriage is above all a personal matter in our private life.”
And bien sur, the world eventually came to terms with Hollande’s personal life and the idea of a First Girlfriend. He is, after all, French, which gave both him and Trierweiler carte blanche to buck social conventions in the relationship department. As for the Middle East, a French journalist once told me: “The Arabs have known the French well for millennia. I’m not sure anything we do can surprise them. When a king of some Gulf Emirate state comes to Paris, he usually brings dozens of wives with him — and no one checks if they are all legally married to him.”
So the kerfluffle over tomorrow’s dinner at the White House might stem more from America’s puritanic traditions than anything else — and it would serve us well to consider that a first lady in France is not nearly as burdened by cultural baggage as she is in the U.S. For starters, in our country the president and his missus are the idealized model of what constitutes a stable marriage and happy coupledom: They are not two separate individuals but One Couple, Indivisible. And the iconic first lady is a figurehead of rectitude and propriety; a cheerleader and den mother who stands by her man.
Even with her passionate commitment to social crusades, the first lady must sublimate some of her personal independence for the sake of being a good and loyal political wife. This equation is shaked and baked in the hell fires of Puritanism and soul mate folklore: In the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one plus one must always and imperatively make One.
It would serve us well to consider that a first lady in France is not nearly as burdened by cultural baggage as she is in the U.S.
Contradicting this image of perfect harmony rubs Americans the wrong way. You will recall that Teresa Heinz, Sen. John Kerry’s wife, was so independent and iconoclastic that during Kerry’s bid for the presidential election, the American media didn’t know what to make of her. As one reporter sniffed, “She’s too European.”
Which brings us back to Hollande and Segolène Royal, Francois’s real first lady, at least in the chronological sense. Royal was never married to Hollande but they co-habitated for three decades and had four children together. A complete non-issue in France, but it certainly got the outside world hot and bothered. Her mélange of femininity and political power, never mind her unorthodox relationship with Hollande, were so far off the American radar that Salon magazine suggested she lived “in a parallel universe.”
Royal called herself a “free woman” and when her relationship with Hollande began to fall apart, the French did not perceive the couple’s personal issues as a fatal flaw or a point of great public import. When asked whether they were a couple, Hollande simply replied: “It is not for us to either confirm or deny. Our lives belong to us.” Everyone in France seemed to agree.
Similarly, when the wife of former French president Sarkozy told the press, “I don’t see myself as a first lady. That bores me. I am not politically correct,” no one in France batted an eye. This echoed former French first lady Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing who, when asked what she wanted to do as France’s wife in chief, replied, “To no longer be one.” Should a potential U.S. first lady utter those words, she might single-handedly derail her husband’s plans for the Oval Office.
The iconic first lady is a figurehead of rectitude and propriety; a cheerleader and den mother who stands by her man.
But as Sarkozy once told Le Figaro magazine, “In France you elect a candidate, not a family.” True. And just as the average French couple is free to stray from the mold of social convention, so too are the president and his first lady — or his first girlfriend, or his second, or his third…
So, while diplomats and gossips alike will be buzzing over who gets to sit next to President Obama tonight — an honor that usually goes to the partner of the visiting head of state — perhaps the better question to ponder is whether Americans should take a page from the French when it comes to affairs of the heart.
In the end, Hollande will show up in America exposed on one level for who he is: a single man with a messy personal life — just like millions of other people around the world. There is no pretense to be happily married here, no political wife standing by his side. It’s just like real life.
Debra Ollivier is the author of What French Women Know and Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl.