Hollande Gayet: Scandal and the French president
This morning the French people were treated to dramatic pictures of their president, disguised by a black motorcycle helmet, being dropped off by scooter at the apartment of his alleged girlfriend.
Photos had been taken from an apartment across the street. There were timings of his comings and goings. Even his secret service bodyguard was noted delivering the morning croissants. The magazine Closer has seven pages detailing the visits to the building in the affluent eighth arrondissement.
The woman is Julie Gayet, a film actress and prominent supporter of Francois Hollande. She had gushed during the election campaign that "he was humble and a really good listener".
The apartment is no more than 300m (984ft) from the Elysee Palace, but the need for secrecy involved the head of state putting on a helmet and riding on the back of a scooter.
The president's office has reacted furiously. Francois Hollande, it is said, greatly deplores the invasion of his privacy, to which he has a right as any other French citizen. He is looking into the possibility of taking legal action. There was no denial of the story, however.
Very few French politicians have commented. Those who have spoken only underline the right of every citizen to privacy.
Later on Friday the managing editor of Closer, Laurence Pieau, said the magazine would remove from its website the feature about the Hollande-Gayet relationship, at the request of Julie Gayet's lawyers. No such request had been made concerning the print edition, she told AFP news agency,Restrained reaction
What was interesting, on a brief visit to the street with the apartment, was the absence of media. French channels are wary of pursuing this story, in a country with strict laws on privacy. But the visit underlined a cultural difference between French and British society. A similar story in London would have led to the apartment being surrounded by reporters and cameras. A quick canvassing of street opinion was met by shrugs and the belief that the president was entitled to do what he likes.
The fact that the president has a live-in partner, Valerie Trierweiler, is regarded as a private matter. In recent months there has been speculation that his relationship with The First Girlfriend - as the Americans like to call her - has been under increasing strain.
French privacy laws
- Among strictest in world - constitution says "everyone has the right to privacy"
- Publication of private details of someone's life without their consent is punishable offence
- French media often more cautious than in US or UK about private lives of politicians or celebrities
- Privacy laws helped late President Francois Mitterrand conceal existence of daughter Mazarine, whose mother was his mistress
- Main defences - right to freedom of expression and public interest (ie, how an official's behaviour may affect his/her work)
- Privacy debate was reignited by sex allegations about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF chief and a top Socialist politician
Whatever the French attachment to privacy, however, there is a further risk to the president's authority. He has the lowest ratings of any president during the Fifth Republic.
Although France seems to have eked out some growth in the final quarter of 2013, the economy hovers close to recession. Unemployment - which the president asked to be judged by - remains stubbornly high at 11%. The country is often referred to as the Sick Man of Europe and other Europeans - in particular the Germans - say that France under Mr Hollande has failed to carry out meaningful reforms to restore its economy's competitiveness.
He campaigned as "Mr Normal" and there will be some who say his presidency lacks purpose, ambition and direction. That is a criticism, however, that cannot be applied to his handling of foreign affairs, where he has been bold and unafraid of using military intervention.
To be fair, Mr Hollande has changed some labour laws, making it easier to hire and fire workers and to reduce their pay and working hours during a downturn. But business leaders want a reduction in taxes and wholesale reform of welfare entitlements.Privacy debate
During the election campaign there was some criticism of the bad blood between Segolene Royal - his former partner and mother of his four children - and his current girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler. Some questioned why the president had not sorted out his private life before arriving in the Elysee Palace.
Some of that criticism will resurface. His critics used to refer to him as "Monsieur Flamby", a wobbly pudding. Some of those remarks may be dusted down, too.
But the French have a history of presidents with complicated private lives. President Mitterrand - Mr Hollande's mentor - had a secret family.
However much the French defend privacy, Closer magazine was sold out at many newsstands. It remains to be seen what the French really make of their president's lifestyle after hours.
Next Tuesday he gives his New Year press conference. It will be interesting whether he is asked about his alleged affair but, perhaps more importantly, whether he can relaunch his troubled presidency with some bold economic reforms.