Twittering First Ladies: The Trierweiler Case

The ‘First Girlfriend’ of French politics, though many would prefer such benign, uncommitted terms as ‘partner’, has become somewhat anomalous to students of French politics. Political roles for the companions of any high office tend to be highly restrictive. Roles must be constrained, opinions modified if not kept silent altogether. Political fronts of unity are kept up for the sake of a happy ship, a very dull affair especially when that ship is anchored in difficult waters.

Valérie Trierweiler, through the instant media feed of Twitter, has placed herself in the middle of a minor storm. A few features emerge. Most conspicuous is her open support for the expelled socialist Olivier Falorni in his parliamentary bid to represent the constituency that incorporates La Rochelle. Trierweiler tweeted her best to ‘Olivier Falorni who has proved himself worthy, who has fought selflessly for the people of La Rochelle for so many years.’

This should hardly be a problem, but for another fact: her husband François Hollande doesn’t. Making the situation messier is that her husband has backed, in a show of political unity, his former wife and one time glamour girl of the French socialist movement, Ségolène Royal. Royal, should she win, has also been promised the post of president of the National Assembly. Usher in, then, the ‘war of the roses’.

The French are puzzled, since Mr. Normal, as Hollande billed himself in distinction to his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, is certainly more normal than he intended to be – a man wedged between two women and caught in the headlights. But that is neither here nor there – what this episode throws up are the dislocations produced by the digital world with that of the political.

Suggestions that Trierweiler relinquish her day job in favour of being a submissive appendage of the presidential office should be scotched. One can still be loyal to one’s partner without having to necessarily agree with the entire agenda, though politics can be a tricky business. First Lady Danièle Mitterand was certainly not one to go quietly when it came to positions her husband took. The role played by the Firs Lady remains undefined.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will not have a bar of the First Lady’s behaviour, though he did tell France Info radio that he found the role of the First Lady as ‘a discreet one which is not easy to figure out.’ With that note of caution, Ayrault steamrolled Trierweiler with a stinging rebuke. ‘I can accept that beginnings are always a bit complicated, but everyone must keep to their place.’ Having identified a role that he himself finds trouble defining, tradition must still be observed – people after all have their ‘place’.

The problem here is particularly acute given that French politicians do have a habit of marrying journalists. Ethical considerations can arise during campaigns. Allies may not want to be attacked by lovers who so happen to share the same bed, but opinions should still be expressed on the broadsheet. But in a world where the public display of instant media – call it ‘authentic’, genuine, unvarnished – faces that of rehearsal, theatre and play – the political, clashes are inevitable. Trierweiler herself sees ‘no mixing of public and private lives here’ though she ignores the fact that public stances have been taken.

Commentators have even wondered whether the tweet was a vetted one, carefully constructed rather than an act of psychodramatic intensity. Was a shady committee involved with spin-doctor like guile, or was this, in fact, the itchy fingers of jealousy? When these clouds pass after the elections, the incident should be forgotten – but the implications of technology on human behavior and the role it plays in high profile political positions will not.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.