Obviously, the whole Hollande business is utterly compelling from a prurient point of view, though journalists did brilliantly in coming up with spurious public interest reasons for talking about it (Corsican mafia! Presidential security! Lying!). The most riveting aspect, for me, is the heroic restraint of his former partner Ségolène Royale when she was asked about it on telly — given that she was ditched by Mr Hollande after 30 years of respectable concubinage and four children in favour of the woman now being humiliated by this affair. ‘Time to turn the page,’ she said. Each woman is younger than her predecessor — naturally.
But what’s more interesting is the widespread assumption that this is a situation that has to be clarified. In the words of one journalist at the president’s press conference, who is going to be first lady when the president makes his official visit to the US? That’s the criterion of respectability: who gets to have spouse time with Michelle?
It gives journalists a decent cover for asking the president to make his mind up about which woman he wants to live with: who is going with him to America (Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni regularised their relationship before visiting the Pope), and who’s going to be getting the fabulous state-funded perks that Valérie enjoys by dint of the first lady thing — the five members of staff, say.
The one option that the president is plainly not allowed to go for is to continue to have a mistress, pregnant or not. But what if he doesn’t in fact want to bring Ms Gayet to America; what if the ambiguity of an affair was precisely what he, they, liked about their encounters? An illicit relationship has, I gather, its charms. It’s understandable that Valérie Trierweiler should want clarity from Mr Hollande, but — for all the talk about Gallic laissez-faire when it comes to sex — the French press, like ours, seem to think that he should regularise one relationship or the other.
Yet the truth is that Mr Hollande is a bachelor: he’s never been married; he’s not technically an adulterer. That gives him, you’d think, a bit of leeway on the sexual front; the fact he’s never made any vows to anyone (which says something about him) and so hasn’t broken any. If anything, Ségolène Royale was to all intents and purposes his spouse, but her claims were ruthlessly disregarded by him and Valérie Trierweiler. She’s the mistress made good and is hardly entitled to complain if she’s displaced; yet the handy, quasi-official title of first lady has rather obscured the fact. Which isn’t to say she’s got public sympathy: President Hollande’s dismal poll rating with women improved after the pictures in Closer magazine.
In Britain, we’re discussing this affair as if it were the same kind of marital infidelity that characterised François Mitterrand’s behaviour towards his long-suffering wife, Danielle. If you recall, he had an second family and a daughter, Mazarine, by his mistress. That affair should have merited social censure, but it was, in the then customary French fashion, discussed by those who knew about it without ever becoming public knowledge. Funnily enough, it was the same photographer who captured François Hollande’s escapades who got the first pictures of Mazarine, though this time he didn’t wait for presidential consent to publish.
Both the French and the English seem to have drifted into a new censoriousness, which requires of a public figure simply that he should make his mind up about who, exactly, he’s sleeping with. (Alastair Campbell, discussing the issue, suggested that ‘it depends what the truth of these relationships is’; the approach he took with Robin Cook when he was outed was to get him to decide: wife or mistress.) We’re not too hung up on permanent commitment but we’re keen on serial monogamy. Formerly, you were married or you weren’t, though in situations of this kind you might end up marrying the mistress, as Prince Charles did. Marriage is a formal, unambiguous condition. What we’ve got now, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world, is the more hazy concept of ‘partner’. It’s a drearier take on a lover or mistress, a non-censorious way of putting spouses and girlfriends on the same basis. The French word partner, interestingly, doesn’t have quite the same pseudo-marital status as the term does here. And the word maîtresse is used there more often, as is amie or girlfriend. Even so, they’re clearly prey to the same tedious idea: only monogamy will do.
The real casualty of this business is the venerable status of the mistress, which may or may not be the position of Julie Gayet. It describes a relationship that’s sexual, without the privileges of marriage but with all the charm of relative non-commitment. That’s just what, in our new moralism, we don’t seem able to handle.