New première dame vows she won’t be a trophy wife

Humble beginnings and a good work ethic will help the new first lady hold her own in French circles, writes Elaine Ganley

ONLY in France. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, superstar model turned songstress with a freewheeling lifestyle, hands the job of first lady to a twice-divorced journalist who’s the first presidential partner to enter the Élysée Palace without a ring on her finger.

And as Valérie Trierweiler prepares for her new role alongside president-elect François Hollande, in the wings is the woman whose man she stole — Ségolène Royal, mother of Hollande’s four children and a former presidential candidate now seeking her own seat of political power.

So what’s happening in the land of French officialdom, where protocol and social niceties still count? Will Trierweiler’s name be listed on formal invitations to presidential events, even though she’s not his spouse?

It’s the head of state who decides, so where’s the problem?

Intrigue, love lost, love found, and power struggles accompanied the new first couple on their journey to the presidency, which Hollande takes over from Nicolas Sarkozy on May 15.

Bruni-Sarkozy, who married the outgoing president after he divorced his second wife while in office, adapted to the job of first lady like slipping into a silver slipper.

Past romantic adventures with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton faded as she cultivated a low profile as France’s “première dame,” charming and disarming heads of state. Some think Trierweiler may do better.

“Valérie is perfect. She’s so French,” Paris-based fashion writer Rebecca Voight insists. “It’s what French women see in themselves. ... She kept a respectful distance from Hollande during the campaign and also had her career, which people respect.”

Privilege sums up Sarkozy’s Italian-born wife, who comes from a wealthy Turin family. Trierweiler’s roots are more humble. One of six children, she grew up in a modest neighbourhood in Angers, in western France, then studied political science at the Sorbonne.

“I didn’t choose to have a public life. I chose François,” she said in an interview with Paris-Match in October. “But I will adapt.”

Elegant and intelligent, Trierweiler, who has three teenage sons from her previous marriage, is 10 years younger than the 57-year-old Hollande. She met him years ago while covering the Socialist Party, which he headed for 11 years until 2008.

In 2005 Hollande’s then-partner Royal was beginning to prepare her own presidential candidacy.

Hollande and Royal maintained a pact of silence about their crumbling relationship — broken only after she lost to Sarkozy in 2007. Royal then announced that she had asked Hollande to leave their family home.

Royal, who soldiered through Hollande’s presidential campaign with occasional appearances, now wants a piece of the political pie — as speaker of the lower house of parliament should the Socialists win June legislative elections.

As for Trierweiler, she cheered Hollande on at rallies but also kept an office at the Socialists’ campaign headquarters, assuring she was never far from earshot.

And on Tuesday, she let journalists waiting outside the couple’s Paris apartment know who’s in charge with a tweet: “I thank my colleagues for respecting our private life and that of our neighbours. Please don’t camp in front of our home.”

Some political enemies of the president elect threw darts, with apolitician in Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party comparing Trierweiler to a Rottweiler.

“All these attacks, one is lower than the next,” the incoming first lady said on Radio Hollande, a station set up as part of his presidential campaign.

Some mundane problems will need to be resolved, namely where the first couple will reside. Eschewing tradition — and the Élysée Palace — they want to remain in their own apartment, located in a busy Paris neighbourhood and said to be a security nightmare.

And how will their unwed status play to the crowd of official visitors or when travelling abroad, particularly to countries sensitive about male-female ties outside wedlock? Will they simply break down and get married?

Trierweiler wants to keep working even though she has been booted from her job as a political reporter to avoid conflict of interest.

“Even if my press card is withdrawn, I will die a journalist. It’s in my soul,” she told Radio Hollande.

In her new role, she is walking through the other side of the looking glass, and she knows it.

“This role makes me a little uncomfortable, but I will manage very well if it is not limited just to that. I want to represent the image of France, do the necessary smiling, be well-dressed, but it shouldn’t stop there. I will not be a trophy wife,” she told The Times.

Première dame

As France bids “adieu” to Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, supermodel-singer Carla Bruni, a new fascinating female steps into the role of France’s “première dame”. Here, some facts about Valérie Trierweiler.

* The divorced mother of three is the companion of newly elected president François Hollande. This will make her the first unmarried “first lady” in France’s history.

* The 47-year-old has been a journalist for Paris Match magazine since 1989 — and she refused to step down when she started dating Hollande, the presidential candidate she met while covering politics for her magazine.

* She no longer covers politics due to the conflict of interest. However, the reporter was enraged to find herself on the cover of Paris Match recently, which dished about her relationship with the Socialist candidate.

* Trierweiler earned the nickname “Rottweiler” after reportedly slapping a colleague for saying something she thought was sexist.

* The chic Direct 8 TV talk-show host is credited with helping her partner drop 22lb and counselled him to “drop his jokey performances for a more statesman-like stance”. She also says he does the shopping and cleaning.


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