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Sunday 17 June 2012

Tweet at the centre of a 'Dallas in Elysee' drama

Complicated past domestic affairs have left France's new first lady at odds with another high-profile woman, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

WHEN I'm returning to a topic, I usually check what I said last time lest I repeat myself. So I looked back at my April article about the French presidential election and see I ended it with: "What is new is that a country that has always frowned on invasions of privacy is now riveted by the sex lives of its leading politicians."

The drama of Nicolas Sarkozy and his third wife, the exotic multi-millionairess ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, was pretty exciting by non-French standards, and it isn't over yet. As they left the Elysee Palace for the slightly more modest confines of her Parisian mansion, Carla furiously blamed left-wing journalists for his defeat. She won't be pleased that with the appointment of ex-prime minister Laurent Fabius as foreign minister, there has been much happy gossip about Carla's and Laurent's brief "passionate" (French affairs are always passionate) affair in the early Noughties. Of course, Carla was a socialist then: her conversion to conservatism came with her marriage.

However, the ructions between Segolene Royal and Valerie Trierweiler, the ladies in the life of the new president, Francois Hollande, have driven Carla out of the news for now. Francois lived with another socialist politician, Segolene Royal, for 30 years and they had four children; marriage was too bourgeois for them.

Both grandes fromages in the Socialist Party, their rivalry put strains on their personal relationship, and in around 2005, Francois took comfort in the arms of Valerie, a political journalist on Paris Match, and a mother of three by her second husband, to whom she was still married. The atmosphere at home must have been on the tense side when Segolene won the party nomination to run in the 2007 presidential election. She lost by 47 per cent to 53 per cent. She blamed Francois, among others, for inadequate support and threw him out. Francois stepped down as first secretary of the party, didn't support Segolene when she ran for the job and she lost. She had also resigned her parliamentary seat because of a promise she had given while running for president.

Francois and Valerie lived together but didn't reveal their relationship publicly until her divorce came through in 2010, by which time he was trying to win the party's presidential nomination. Segolene, who wanted to run again, was defeated early on, but Hollande was badly trailing Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, until DSK had an ill-judged sexual encounter with a maid in a New York hotel which finished him politically, thus depriving crisis-torn Europe of the services of an outstanding intellect.

Hollande is dull, but the French had become fed up with Sarko's flashiness and egotism. Valerie was a steely and effective part of his campaign team and -- in the interests of the party -- Segolene withdrew earlier comments about his general uselessness and gave him full support. He didn't give her a ministerial job, but it was understood that if she won a parliamentary seat he would back her to be speaker of the National Assembly.

Segolene is seeking election in La Rochelle, but her task was made more difficult because a dissident socialist, Olivier Falorni, is standing against her. In the first round Segolene won 32 per cent to Falorni's 29 per cent, but in the run-off today she is in real peril, as the right have decided to back him to embarrass the president. So Francois, who otherwise has stayed out of the parliamentary elections, announced that Segolene had his full support. Valerie -- who is by all accounts consumed with jealousy of her predecessor, whom she allegedly calls "the nutter from Poitou" -- was displeased and dispatched a tweet: "Good luck to Olivier Falorni who has done nothing worthy of blame, who has fought alongside the people of La Rochelle for so many years with selfless commitment."

Since the president seems incapable of controlling Valerie, it has fallen to other political colleagues to ask her to shut up and learn some discretion, but she continues to harp on about being an independent woman and insisting that being the president's partner shouldn't affect her job.

Segolene has been dignified but is very shaken: "I am very affected -- I am not a robot."

Whether she wins or loses today, the Socialist Party faces deep embarrassment. If Francois keeps his promise, she and he will be in constant contact and the press will be watching for further developments in what one opposition politician has christened "Dallas in the Elysee".

If she loses, her political career in dead but she will attract a wave of public sympathy.

Meanwhile, Valerie has undermined the president and made him appear weak. She has 112,000 followers on Twitter but is also thought to be the most unpopular woman in France. It's amazing what you can do with just one tiny tweet.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards