POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 11, 2014
PARIS » The photographs show a stout man of middling height striding out of an ordinary-looking Parisian apartment house, a helmet and a dark visor obscuring his face. He gets on a motorized scooter and zooms away into the 8th Arrondissement.
The face behind the visor, a glossy tabloid magazine called Closer reported Friday, belongs to President Francois Hollande of France. The apartment, a short distance from the Ilysie Palace, is used for his meetings with an actress 18 years younger than he is, who is not his primary partner, the magazine said.
Revelations of that sort typically do not shock the French people, and this one is no different. But Hollande, while not denying the report, lashed out at the magazine for violating what he has sought to define as his privacy rights, suggesting that the French president, like any citizen, is entitled to assignations.
Hollande “profoundly deplores the violations of the respect of private life, to which he has the right, like any citizen,” his office said in a statement. He condemned the magazine, and said he was weighing action, including through the courts, to defend his privacy.
In an era of mass violations of personal privacy, including widespread mining of French phone data revealed by Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, Hollande’s appeal for confidentiality appears to have resonated in the country. Moreover, Hollande, who has abysmally low poll ratings largely because of his handling of the sclerotic French economy, is unlikely to suffer a further backlash from voters over reports of an affair, which rarely generate the sort of public moralizing in France that they do in the United States.
But the relationship, assuming that the report is correct, suggests the continuance of a rather complicated love life for Hollande, 59, one that at times has directly intersected with his public roles and has amounted to a new challenge to the French presumption that the private lives of public figures are no one’s business.
Hollande, who has never married, was involved for many years with Sigolhne Royal, a former presidential candidate for his Socialist Party. The two have four children together. He strongly supported her unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2007, and they appeared together as a couple throughout the race before splitting publicly immediately afterward.
More recently, he has been in a relationship with Valirie Trierweiler, a journalist for the magazine Paris Match who has acted as France’s first lady since Hollande’s election in 2012. Their relationship began while Trierweiler was covering Hollande for the magazine. Royal and Trierweiler had engaged in a highly public rivalry that was made particularly plain when, on Twitter, Trierweiler supported a candidate running in a legislative election against Royal, who had received the backing of Hollande. That incident caused a minor political scandal, and Trierweiler’s Twitter activity has been somewhat less adventuresome since.
Closer, a weekly tabloid that in 2012 drew the ire of the British royal family for publishing topless pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, published an article and a collection of photos Friday that it said documented Hollande’s meetings with the actress, Julie Gayet, 41.
The photos appear to show Hollande and his security detail coming and going by motorcycle on several occasions from the apartment. Gayet can be seen entering the same building. The photos show a man said to be Hollande — the man was always photographed wearing a helmet with a full visor — arriving at the building. In one photo, a man in an overcoat with his helmet on is shown as he leaves the building. Hollande and Gayet are not shown together.
Rumors of a relationship between the two had circulated for months in Paris, and last year Gayet went so far as to seek a court injunction to make them stop. On Friday, Closer said it would remove the photos from its website in response to a request from Gayet.
Trierweiler made no public comment on the report, and the status of her relationship with Hollande remained unclear.
Gayet, who has two children and is said to be separated from her husband, an Argentine film director, has mostly acted in independent films and has played mainly secondary roles, as well as producing some of her own movies. She has played a drug addict, a blind woman, a lesbian and a hairdresser, and in articles about her films she has been praised by directors for her professionalism and artistic choices. She was an active supporter of Hollande’s during his presidential campaign.
Speaking Friday on Europe 1 radio, Laurence Pieau, the top editor at Closer, called Hollande a “normal president” and “a normal person.”
“He’s a president who’s fallen in love,” Pieau said. “We really need to undramatize these images.”
The reaction of French people, many of whom said they had heard the rumor before the magazine’s report, was much the same as Pieau’s.
Julie Lechevalier, 32, a legal specialist at a technology company, saw it as perhaps not laudable behavior, but hardly something to be condemned.
“This shows our president is a normal man,” she said, adding that even if she did not approve morally, Hollande had “the right to live his life even if he is president of the republic.”
The love lives of public officials were long considered off limits for French journalists, some of whom, like Trierweiler, have become involved with politicians. Several recent presidents have been widely rumored to have had affairs that the news media have avoided publicizing.
A century ago, President Filix Faure expired in the presidential palace at age 58 while engaging in some extramarital sport with a young woman. (Newspapers at the time did not make explicit the circumstances of his death, but one suggested with a wink that Faure had been “sacrificed to Venus,” the Roman goddess of love.)
Now, a combination of factors, including the Internet and the very public soap opera around former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s divorce and subsequent marriage to a model-turned-singer, Carla Bruni, has changed the news media’s appetite for intimate glimpses into the lives of powerful men.
The first significant shift in the news media’s approach came in 1994, when Paris Match published photos of President Francois Mitterrand with Mazarine Pingeot, his daughter from a long-running affair. Pingeot’s existence had been kept hidden from the public but was an open secret among French journalists.
The 2011 arrest on sexual assault charges of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the head of the International Monetary Fund, exposed the potential dangers of the news media’s silence. The legal case against him and subsequent accounts from other women forced a debate about the French news media’s deference to powerful figures over sex.
However, the debate died down, and the question of how much the news media should say about private lives has not been resolved.
In interviews, several people said they were comfortable having Hollande keep his romantic liaison out of public view.
A financial officer at an industrial company, Alexandre Pasquier, 33, said: “The split between private life and public life is very important to me,” adding, “This does not involve a political problem.”
Pasquier said that, although he did not approve of infidelity “on a moral plane,” Hollande’s apparent affair would not affect either the president’s ability to run the country or the French population’s view of him.
“It’s not going to stain his image,” he said. “He has so many other things going badly, this won’t hurt him. It could even maybe give him a boost.”
Alissa J. Rubin and Scott Sayare, New York Times