PARIS — Under pressure over a magazine report that he is having a secret affair with an actress, French President Francois Hollande conceded Tuesday he is going through “painful moments” with his companion but otherwise sidestepped specifics on his personal life.
Hollande’s partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been hospitalized since Friday, when Closer published photos it said proved Hollande’s liaison. Speaking at a major news conference, Hollande said Trierweiler “is resting” but insisted that the venue in front of hundreds of reporters was “neither the place nor the moment” to discuss the issue.
The report has heaped new problems on the already unpopular Hollande, whose announcement Tuesday of economic measures meant to encourage hiring was nearly overshadowed by the scandal.
The report in the magazine Closer showed photos of a man the magazine identified as Hollande wearing a motorcycle helmet and being ferried on the back of a small scooter to an alleged tryst with film actress Julie Gayet.
The latest revelations call into question whether a complex personal life can be private for someone with round-the-clock bodyguards, and about the role of “first lady” in France. Trierweiler is the first person to hold the post who was not married to the president. The first lady doesn’t have formal status in France, but in practice she has an office in the presidential palace and small staff.
Asked if Trierweiler was still the first lady, Hollande responded: “Everyone in his or her personal life can go through ordeals — that’s the case with us. But I have a principle. It’s that private affairs should be handled privately, respecting the intimacy of all. This is neither the place nor the moment to do so.”
He said he would have a response to the question before his Feb. 11 state visit to Washington, a trip that would normally include Trierweiler.
The once-sacred tradition in France of keeping private lives private has been chipped away as bloggers, tweeters and others have tapped into public curiosity. Hollande said of the Closer report that his “indignation is total” and called it a “violation that touches a personal liberty.” He did not say whether the report is true.
Hollande did not mention the report at all during his prepared speech, in which he announced measures meant to loosen up France’s labor market and cut into the 11 percent unemployment rate. He promised to cut 50 billion euros ($68 billion) in public spending over the years 2015-2017 and laid out a broad economic strategy that largely involved going “faster, farther” with modest reforms his government has already taken.
The issue of whether the president was having an affair has consumed French media. It even reached the floor of parliament Tuesday. A leading legislator from the opposition conservative UMP party accused the president of taking unreasonable risks with his security.
“The president is not a normal citizen during his term. He is the chief of our armies. He is the keystone of our institutions. His protection should not suffer from any amateurism,” Christian Jacob said in the National Assembly. “The president should be aware of the level of responsibility that he exercises, be aware that his role is greater than his person, and be aware that he incarnates the image of France in the eyes of the world.”
Asked whether his security was compromised, Hollande said, “My security is assured everywhere, and at any moment. When I travel officially … and when I travel on a private basis, I have protection that is less suffocating. But I am protected everywhere.”
He left open the possibility of suing Closer for the publication.
The photos were taken by Sebastien Valiela, who rocked France’s political establishment 20 years ago with images that revealed the secret family of then-President Francois Mitterrand, showing the Socialist leader emerging from a restaurant with the daughter he had never acknowledged.
Francois Rebsamen, a Socialist lawmaker who counts himself among Hollande’s friends, said the revelations showed the entire idea of a first lady was obsolete.
“Francois Hollande himself said it at one point: You elect a person. And then this person can live alone, can be single, can live with another man or a woman. It’s no one’s business and it doesn’t come into play,” he told RTL radio on Tuesday.
Hollande, who has four children from a previous relationship with a leading politician, was elected as a “Monsieur Normal” in a backlash against his flamboyant predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst, said Hollande — who was already the most unpopular president in modern French history before the recent revelations — had brought the scrutiny on himself.
“He wanted to impress the French with the fact that he was a normal man, that he was a man of dignity, simplicity, moral rigor,” he said. “Suddenly the French are discovering that he is like others, but in a less glorious manner, even a ridiculous manner.”