Hollande bids to deflect affair scandal with policy plans

January 14, 2014 - 2:57:50 pm

PARIS: Francois Hollande faced the tough task of rousing media interest for his 2014 policy plans Tuesday as all eyes remained firmly trained on shock revelations of his affair with a glamorous actress.

The French president is to hold a high-profile press conference which was initially expected to culminate with a key announcement on reforms to spur economic growth and create jobs.

But the conference, scheduled for 1530 GMT, is more likely to produce headlines on Hollande's private life, which was thrust into the spotlight last week by media revelations he was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet.

The 59-year-old Hollande had initially been hoping to ride out the storm created by last week's report of an affair with Gayet, a blonde 18 years his junior.

But those hopes were shattered with the hospitalisation on Friday of Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande's long-time partner and de facto First Lady.

The leader of the opposition, right-wing UMP party chief Jean-Francois Cope, has already pounced on the scandal as "having deeply undermined the president's authority".

"Hollande under pressure" said Le Parisien daily Tuesday, reporting that the president had consulted aides on the line to adopt at the press conference.

"Some advised him to put out a statement announcing a split but the hospitalisation of Valerie Trierweiler prompted him to give himself some more time," the paper said.

The left-leaning Liberation said the Socialist leader faced a "dangerous" press conference, where the first three questions have already been set and vetted by Hollande's office. After that the floor will be open to anyone.

The affair has also raised questions about Hollande's security and Sebastien Valiela, the photographer who shot Hollande allegedly going for his trysts said the president "was not well protected."

In front of around 600 journalists, Hollande, who has the worst approval ratings of any modern president, will float his "responsibility pact", in which he offers companies lower taxes in exchange for hiring more workers.

Trierweiler had been expected to check out of hospital on Monday, but "doctors believe she needs more rest", her aide said.

Symptoms variously described in the media as low blood pressure, exhaustion and a "severe case of the blues" developed within hours of glossy French magazine Closer publishing details of Hollande's secret meetings with Gayet in a borrowed apartment close to his residence.

Since then Hollande has faced mounting pressure, including from his own camp, to spell out the role of Trierweiler, who lives with him at the Elysee Palace.

"He has to clarify the situation," said Thierry Mandon, the spokesman for the Socialist Party's parliamentary group.

"He has to do it once, firmly and decisively, and then we don't talk about it anymore," he said ahead of Hollande's bi-annual press conference, his third since coming to power in May 2012.


'Ready to forgive'

The traditional reticence in France's media and political class over what is seen as prying into the private lives of public figures ensured that reaction was at first subdued.

Despite concerns that Hollande had apparently been taking security risks with clandestine visits to the flat on a chauffeur-driven scooter, it looked like he would be allowed to resolve his personal dilemma behind closed doors.

But the fact that Trierweiler is effectively a public figure with an entourage funded by the taxpayer has made her future a legitimate news story.

Having put her career as a journalist for Paris Match on hold after Hollande's 2012 election, Trierweiler has accompanied the president on overseas visits to China, Japan and India, and is due to travel with him to Washington next month.

Francois Rebsamen, who chairs the socialist party group in the Senate and is close to the head of state, told RTL radio Tuesday he hoped the notion of "First Lady" in France would disappear, calling it an "outdated practice" that should be banned.

Rumours had swirled since Gayet appeared in a 2012 Hollande campaign video in which she gushed about him being "fantastic, humble and really ready to listen".

Nonetheless, friends of Trierweiler quoted by Le Parisien newspaper have insisted she was devastated when the report of the affair emerged.

"She is ready to forgive him, she doesn't want to slam the door but she has to know quickly what his intentions are," the local paper quoted a friend as saying.

Opinion polls suggest French voters believe Hollande's love life is his own business. A weekend survey found that more than three quarters (77 percent) feel that way -- though that was before Trierweiler's hospitalisation.

Twice-divorced Trierweiler has officially been Hollande's partner since 2007, when he left Segolene Royal, a fellow heavyweight in the Socialist Party with whom he has four children. (AFP)