More than 500 journalists had booked a seat for an annual press conference from President Francois Hollande - long before his affair was front-page news. Now, the key political appointment has taken a personal twist.
Unlike the previous few days, French President Francois Hollande was scheduled to make international headlines this Tuesday. He will brief hundreds of journalists at a major annual press conference, not that dissimilar to the State of the Union address in the US, on his policy plans for France in the coming year. The Socialist leader's speech was already hotly anticipated after he appeared to hint at some major changes in focus during his televised New Year's address.
Now, Hollande will face the press as his lover of several years, Valerie Trierweiler, recuperates in hospital with a case of the blues. She checked herself in on Friday, after celebrity gossip magazine Closer reported that the president was having an affair with actress Julie Gayet. Trierweiler was initially expected to check out on Monday, but an aide said that "doctors believe she needs more rest."
Hollande on Friday announced possible litigation against the magazine, without contesting the report.
The health of France's de facto 'First Lady' - Trierweiler and Hollande are not married - and the president's ties to Gayet, who supported him on the campaign trail back in 2012, are now likely to overshadow what already promised to be a momentous day in French politics.
'Third way' en francais?
Hollande's televised New Year's address to the French people seemed to hint at some rather comprehensive policy changes from the left-leaning leader in 2014, as France battles 11-percent unemployment. The president mentioned one plan explicitly, calling for a "responsibility pact" with French businesses, offering them tax breaks in return for recruiting more staff.
"It is based on a simple principle: lower labor charges and fewer restrictions on their activity in return for more hires and more dialogue with trade unions," Hollande said on national television, also pledging during his speech that there were signs of improving employment and economic figures for France in the coming months.
"Of course the results are taking a while to appear, but they are there," Hollande said. "I tell you again tonight: I have one priority, one goal, one commitment, and that is employment."
Hollande campaigned on a more traditional left-of-center platform in 2012, with a "super tax" on salaries exceeding 1 million euros (around $1.37 million) recently approved by the country's Constitutional Council - albeit after several revisions. His New Year's comments prompted speculation that the president might be considering switching to a so-called "third way," a more centrist set of policy proposals akin to Gerhard Schröder's Germany, Tony Blair's British government, or the Bill Clinton administration in the US.
French analysts have instead drawn a domestic parallel, pointing to former President Francois Mitterand's turn towards more pro-business policies in his third year in office in 1983. Mitterand, the French Fifth Republic's only other Socialist president before Hollande, faced similar problems of a faltering economy and poor public approval ratings at the time. The about-face ultimately helped Mitterand win a second term as president.
Unlike Mitterand, Hollande will first have to bat away uncomfortable questions about his private life before elaborating on his plans to spur growth and employment figures. Several polls from late in 2013 put Hollande's approval rating below the previous negative records set by Mitterand. One YouGov survey in November gave the president just a 15-percent approval rate.
The pollsters have also recently offered Hollande some good news: On Sunday, 77 percent of respondents said they considered the Gayet story in Closer to be a private matter, while 88 percent said the story had not changed their opinion of Hollande.
msh/slk (AFP, Reuters)