Monday, January 27, 2014

Dans la merde

As politically incorrect as it is to endorse cultural stereotyping as a source of comedy, the French really don't make it easy on themselves.

I'm not talking about the cheese-quaffing, onion string-wearing, berét-adorned 'Allo, 'Allo view of the Gallic nation which Brits still see as prevalent in France. No - and thankfully - this concerns the reputation for apparent rabbit-strength bedroom hopping.

Nowhere has this ever been more amusingly depicted than in A Shot In The Dark, the second Blake Edwards comedy to feature Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau. It opens with a brilliant, almost-single tracking shot of various members and associates of a French millionaire's household sneaking about in the middle of the night to carry out furtive assignations with other members of the household.

The first full scene of the film then goes on to perpetuate the apparent regularity of marital infidelity in French society by the hilarious gag of Herbert Lom - as Chief Inspector Dreyfus - on the phone saying: "Yes my darling. Give my love to the children. I will be round later with some cheese and wine" only to be interrupted by an aide saying "Your wife's on the other line".

Cue, then, the public exposure of President François Hollande and his somewhat comic trysts via scooter in the appropriately named Rue de Cirque, which is so close to the Elysées Palace, he could have crept over there in his pyjamas and slippers and not been spotted.

The conventional wisdom is that the French are largely indifferent towards the whole affair, and that the only indignation is over how the story was exposed by Closer magazine, rather than the president's moped-borne shags with the actress Julie Gayet.

We Anglo-Saxons have even been accused of getting more excited about the entire soap opera than even the locals. But even the most blasé French person must have felt the slight tinge of embarrassment as the presidential bedroom arrangements turned into a farce leading up to last weekend, as rumours circulated of the volatile Valerie Trierweiler's reactions to the revelations. These include the allegation (later denied) that she smashed a Eur 2.5 million vase from the national heritage collection, that she'd overdosed on pills, and that she was holed up in a presidential property in Versailles, holding out for compensation or some sort of formal settlement between her and her former partner, a president invariably characterised as resembling "a suburban dentist".

So, spring forward to Saturday. More farce. Rumours flew around Paris that Hollande was to announce the official separation of himself from Trierweiler. These rumours were consistently denied by the president's people. Until the president himself, "speaking in a personal capacity", called the AFP news agency to declare: "I am making it known that I have put an end to my shared life with Valerie Trierweiler."

Coming on the eve of Trierweiler - in an official capacity as the suddenly now ex-First Lady - jetting off to India for a charity trip, Hollande appeared to be taking charge of the situation for the first time since Closer published that picture of the blue raincoat-clad French president disguised only with a scooter helmet that made him look like a reserve member of Daft Punk.

Hollande may have hoped that his 18-word statement to the AFP would been an end to the fuss. After all, France has worse to worry about than on which bedpost its president plants his chewing gum overnight. But there is a sense here that Trierweiler hasn't even begun to extract her pound of flesh from the situation, and that claims for some sort of legal compensation could drag on for months, distracting Hollande further from the weightier task of addressing spiralling unemployment and the  economic quagmire that is enveloping France.

But, at least, after his apparent dithering over ending the relationship with Trierweiler added to national perceptions that Hollande is floundering, politically, as president, the mood has turned since his announcement on Saturday evening.

Political commentators have even suggested that this could prove a turning point in his presidency, that despite the intrusive perception abroad about his love life, he does, after all, have the cajones to tackle the French malaise.

Just don't bring up the subject of whether he has delivered on his election promise to run a reputationally "exemplary" presidency. Because there, some might very well find fault.

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