Of all the interesting revelations by the French magazine Closer about François Hollande, the most interesting for me is its claim that he owns only one pair of shoes. I don’t think I know anybody with only one pair of shoes. Even my brother John, who at the age of 86 has rather let himself go sartorially-speaking, possesses two pairs. Yet if Closer is to be believed, the President of France has only one pair. The president’s shoes are important because when he arrived from the Elysée Palace on the back of a moped for a visit to his alleged mistress in a nearby apartment, his face was hidden by a safety helmet. So Closer, which secretly photographed his arrival, had to rely on his shoes to confirm his identity. They were, it said, the same shoes he had worn on an earlier visit to Saudi Arabia; and they were, it added, his only ones.
It seems extraordinary that a man occupying the grandest and most powerful of European leadership positions, one originally designed for the towering figure of General de Gaulle, should be so inadequately shod. But then Hollande is not only much smaller than his august precursor (5 foot 6 inches to de Gaulle’s 6 foot 5 inches); as a socialist, he cultivates simplicity and modesty. And to care too much about shoes suggests vanity and self-importance in a man. One of the reasons why I never clean my shoes (though I do have two or three pairs of them) is that one of my drearier contemporaries at Eton, a well-groomed, well-scrubbed member of the landed gentry, told me that the best way to tell a gentleman was by the condition of his footwear. From then on I was determined never to be mistaken for a gentleman.
You certainly couldn’t mistake Hollande for one, and this may be a reason for his great unpopularity (the principal reason, of course, being France’s economic plight). The French seem to like dash and elegance in their leaders, which means that they would probably prefer them not to visit their mistresses on mopeds. The womanising itself does not worry them in the least. The first opinion poll carried out after the magazine’s disclosure of Hollande’s relationship with the steamy blonde actress Julie Gayet showed that only 13 per cent of those questioned thought any the worse of him for it. An impressive 84 per cent said it hadn’t affected their view of him at all, and 3 per cent actually felt better about him as a result.
That 3 per cent might be thought rather low, given that the popular view of the president’s official ‘first lady’, Valérie Trierweiler, is of a ruthlessly ambitious man-eating journalist who has managed to wangle her way into the Elysée Palace and preside there over a large personal staff at the French taxpayer’s expense. But then any desire to see Trierweiler humiliated, however strong, must have been tempered by a realisation that the president’s behaviour on this occasion could not be regarded as a completely private matter. Hollande may consider it such and have threatened legal action for infringement of his privacy, but he can’t realistically have two rival ‘first ladies’ as he prepares for an official visit to Washington next month. I write this before Tuesday’s much-anticipated press conference, at which Hollande has promised to answer any questions about the affair. He will doubtless have done everything possible to avoid choosing one woman over the other; but if he has been forced to do so, he will probably have settled unhappily for Trierweiler as the politically least disastrous option.
Poor old President Hollande. I feel quite sorry for him, even if he is the author of his own misfortunes and a victim of his own improbable success with beautiful women. For he is the first French president ever to be exposed in public for his amorous shenanigans: Giscard, Chirac and Mitterrand, for example, were never confronted with their numerous infidelities. Another ‘first’ among presidents that Hollande has notched up is to have a ‘first lady’ without marrying her. In fact, he has never been married to anybody, not even to Ségolène Royal, with whom he lived for 30 years and had four children.
He may even be seen as a pioneer in making cohabitation without marriage respectable. In Britain it is catching on fast, with even the elderly succumbing to it. The Office for National Statistics says that the number of British people over 65 who are living together but are not married has increased by 40 per cent over the past eight years — from 177,000 to 250,000. But no one like Hollande has yet to emerge in the top ranks of British politics. I would also be surprised if David Cameron doesn’t have an awful lot of shoes.