For the first time ever in France, the incoming presidential couple, Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler, are not man and wife and the protocol boffins at the French foreign ministry are straining over an interesting conundrum: what to call the new First Lady?
Francois Hollande and journalist Valerie Trierweiler have been together since 2005; openly so since 2007, when Hollande’s relationship with fellow Socialist Segolene Royal was publicly ended.
Theirs is by all accounts a devoted partnership. Valerie Trierweiler was at Francois Hollande’s side throughout the campaign, with an office at his headquarter.
Valerie Trierweiler gives him regular advice, and is credited with having masterminded his “relooking” – the makeover and weight-loss programme that preceded his presidential candidacy.
Many will have a got a first look at Valerie Trierweiler during the victory celebrations at the Bastille on Sunday night: an attractive woman of 47 with thick chestnut hair, clearly delighted by her partner’s triumph.
After the exotic glamour of Carla Bruni – and before her the buttoned-up correctness of Bernadette Chirac – she will offer a very different version of the presidential consort.
Valerie Trierweiler’s origins are not exactly humble, but certainly rather more ordinary than the backgrounds of her predecessors. In her own words, she comes from a family of “impoverished bourgeoisie”.
Her paternal grandfather owned a bank in the western town of Angers, but by the time Valerie Massonneau was born in 1965 the affluence had long since petered out.
Her father lost his leg at the age of 12 while playing with an unexploded shell in World War II. They lived in a council house in Angers, and her mother did part-time work as a cashier at a local skating-rink.
One of six brothers and sisters, Valerie had ambition and came to Paris to study politics. She started in journalism at the now-defunct magazine Profession Politique, and in 1989 was taken on as a political reporter at Paris Match, where she has been ever since.
Funnily enough one of her early assignments was to interview the 38-year-old Segolene Royal, who in 1992 had just given birth to her fourth child with Francois Hollande.
Segolene Royal was environment minister at the time – she was the first ever French minister to give birth in office – and spoke to Valerie Trierweiler in her hospital room.
Valerie Trierweiler briefly met Francois Hollande a few years earlier, but their friendship deepened from 2000 when they met often in the corridors of the National Assembly.
“We both loved politics, and we both loved to have a laugh,” she told one interviewer.
Today Valerie Trierweiler says she has to pinch herself to believe the extraordinary change that suddenly come upon her life.
“It’s a bit like I am the subject of one of my own despatches,” she said.
“You know that film in which a person in the audience enters the screen and becomes part of the film. It’s like that.”
Pestered by questions about how she will approach her new life, Valerie Trierweiler has said she needs time to work it out.
The couple has indicated they do not intend to live in the Elysee palace, but they have been told by the presidential security people that their current residence in the 15th arrondissement of Paris is unsuitable.
As much as possible, Valerie Trierweiler wants to maintain her previous lifestyle. She has three children by her former husband Denis Trierweiler, two of whom are taking the baccalaureate in June.
She also intends to keep on with her journalism – though she has already been obliged to give up writing on politics because of her relationship with Francois Hollande.
“It is going to be very complicated,” said the journalist and writer Philippe Labro, who gave her a job as political interviewer on the TV station Direct8.
“She is someone who has always worked, who’s come from nowhere, who’s done everything for herself. I understand her point of view, but it’s going to be very hard to keep doing that and be First Lady.”
One thing she should understand well, given her background at Paris Match, are the demands of the celebrity press – though a recent contretemps with her own employer suggests there could still be tensions to come.
When the magazine published a large and favorable photo-story about her on 8 March (International Women’s Rights Day), she tweeted: “Bravo to the sexism of Paris-Match.”
As for the protocol, no-one seriously thinks the marital status of Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler presents a problem.
Times have changed – and today being unmarried is as “normal” (Francois Hollande’s watchword) as being married.
There just remains the tricky question of what to call her. Conjoint? Compagne? Maybe. Or conceivably Madame Hollande?
Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler have said they will not get married purely for reasons of protocol.
francois hollande, segolene royal, valerie trierweiler