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A journalist as France's first lady? Not a good idea

The World

Valerie Trierweiler, French journalist and partner of president Francois Hollande. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images11 June 2012

A journalist as France's first lady? Not a good idea

Valérie Trierweiler wants to keep working. A laudable ambition, but French journalism is already highly politicised

Agnes Poirier

Is Valérie Trierweiler France's first lady, or France's first journalist?

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The question underlines the precarious position the French president's partner has put herself in. A Paris Match political reporter for the past 22 years, she has just announced that she firmly intends to remain an employee of the weekly magazine, with a monthly salary but no desk. Instead of covering politics she will cover culture and arts, writing arts reviews and interviewing artists. She didn't say whether she'll be writing her papers from her desk at the Elysée Palace, or whether her team of four advisers will be checking her copy and making appointments for her.

It is of course hard not to have any sympathy for her. All she wants is to keep working – a very reasonable demand. She says she doesn't want to financially depend on her partner or the taxpayers, and that she has three teenage sons from two previous marriages for whom she has to provide. In a recent interview, which didn't surprise anyone, she said she didn't mind representing France whenever necessary, "being well dressed", "smiling" and "kissing sick children" but that it was not her style to play Mother Teresa 24 hours a day. After all, any woman with her own career and some ambition would be reluctant to be forced to play the traditional first lady role.

Recent political history has provided strong personalities and career women at the side of presidents and prime ministers: Hilary Clinton and Cherie Blair come immediately to mind. But both were lawyers, an activity which allowed them to put on the side any dossiers with a potential conflict of interest. Trierweiler's main problem is that she is a journalist in France, where journalists are often accused of being too close to politicians. As such, insisting on continuing such an activity is a political mistake.

French journalism is by tradition more opinionated than in Britain. We more often than not favour strong and well-articulated views over fact checking and neutral investigation. Every French journalist is, deep down, a pamphleteer. Such overt bias is perhaps less hypocritical than in the UK and the US; after all, the best we can do is to try and be fair, rather than pretend that journalists are unbiased. It remains though that, in France, politics and journalism too often collide.

As Béatrice Vallaeys wrote in Libération this weekend, Trierweiler is not "normal", and as the New York Times stresses, her choice is stirring real unease. I'd add that it is doing President Hollande and France a disservice. Switching from political reporting to cultural reporting doesn't make her decision more palatable: in France, culture and the arts are as political as government and religion. Considering the enormous public subsidies to the arts in France, Trierweiler's reviews could certainly embarrass a culture minister who, in order to please the president, may think it appropriate to help one artist over another. Written in print in Paris Match, Trierweiler's art views would no doubt become prescriptive, even if in an informal way.

What is the alternative for Hollande's partner? She could take a five-year break and write fiction under a pseudonym. There is probably a publisher in France who would be willing to sign her a three-book deal.

Source: The Guardian UK



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