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Who Needs Marriage? Not France's New President

May 11, 2012
Originally published on May 12, 2012 2:42 am

The French are known for being more tolerant than Americans about their politicians' private lives. One former French president even fathered a child with a mistress while in office.

But every French leader in history has been married — until now.

Next week, after Socialist Francois Hollande is sworn into office, he and his longtime companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, will become the first unmarried couple to move into the Elysee presidential palace.

"People in France, they don't care about the way they live together," says Sarah Merlino, who writes for the weekly lifestyle magazine Gala. "The problem is what he will do with his presidency. Will he be humble? That's the most important thing."

Merlino says many people viewed the outgoing president, Nicolas Sarkozy, as arrogant and ostentatious, and his private life was often splashed across the tabloids. Just after taking office in 2007, Sarkozy's marriage broke up. His highly publicized courtship of top model turned pop singer Carla Bruni soon followed.

Hollande's private life isn't simple, either. On election night, he spoke to supporters flanked by his current companion and his former companion, Segolene Royal, who lost the presidential election to Sarkozy in 2007. Hollande was with Royal for 30 years. Though the couple never married, they have four children together.

Tolerance For Nontraditional Families

If Hollande's domestic situation never caused much of a stir, it's because a growing number of French couples live similarly, choosing to raise children, buy homes and build lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships.

But the French are still shockable. The libertine lifestyle of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, proved to be too much. Merlino says it helps that Hollande is just the opposite of Strauss-Kahn.

"Francois Hollande is not a womanizer. He's very faithful. He lived a long time with Segolene Royal," Merlino says. "He was a good father. His kids are with them. They get on very well. So he's a nice guy."

Merlino says Hollande's Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, helped prepare the public.

"[Mitterand] was married, but he has another child with another woman. So it's been 30 years now that French people, they deal with it," Merlino says. "So this has been much more shocking than today with a president who is not married."

The new president's unmarried status could cause a few protocol issues on foreign travel to a handful of places with strict rules about unwed couples, like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or the Vatican.

Concern With Economic Issues

But in a hair salon near the Eiffel Tower, no one bats an eye.

Claudine Breche, 65, calls Hollande a family man, but says she hopes the new first lady will be more discreet than the last one. And with an economic crisis and austerity measures, the personal life of politicians is not exactly a top priority, she says.

The crowds cheered as Hollande and Trierweiler danced to "La Vie en Rose" on election night. He has called her the love of his life, and many credit the elegantly dressed, twice-divorced mother of three with inspiring the mild-mannered Hollande to transform himself into a tough presidential candidate.

The couple has hinted that marriage might be in the cards, but that certainly won't be dictated by a little thing like a presidential election.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The French are known for being more open than Americans about politicians' private lives. One former French president even fathered an illegitimate child while in office. But with the recent elections comes another first in France, a leader who is unmarried.

NPR's Eleanor Beardsley asks whether that is likely to matter.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Next week, after Francois Hollande is sworn into office, he and his longtime companion, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, will become the first unmarried couple to move into the Elysee Presidential Palace.

Sarah Merlino writes for the weekly lifestyle magazine Gala.

SARAH MERLINO: People in France, they don't care about the way they live together. The problem is what he will do with his presidency. Will he be humble? That's the most important thing.

BEARDSLEY: Merlino says many people were turned off by Sarkozy's arrogance and ostentation and a private life that was often splashed across the tabloids. Just after taking office in 2007, Sarkozy's marriage broke up. Then came his highly publicized courtship of top model-turned-pop singer Carla Bruni.

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Hollande's private life isn't simple either. On election night, he spoke to supporters flanked by his current companion and his ex companion, Segolene Royal, who lost the presidential election to Sarkozy in 2007. Hollande was with Royal for 30 years. Though the couple never married they have four children together. If Hollande's domestic situation never caused much of a stir, it's because a growing number of French couples live similarly, choosing to raise children, buy homes and build lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships.

But the French are still shockable. The libertine lifestyle of former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn proved to be too much. Merlino says it helps that Hollande is just the opposite of Strauss-Kahn.

MERLINO: Francois Hollande is not a womanizer. He's very faithful. He lived a long time with Segolene Royal. He was a good father. His kids are with them. They get on very well. So he's a nice guy.

BEARDSLEY: Merlino says Hollande's socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, first opened people's minds to an alternative lifestyle.

MERLINO: He was married but he has another child with another woman. So it's been 30 years now that French people are - they deal with it. This was much more shocking than today with a president who's not married.

BEARDSLEY: The new president's unmarried status could cause a few protocol problems on foreign travel to a handful of places with strict rules about unwed couples, like Indonesia, Saudi Arabia or the Vatican.

But in this hair salon near the Eiffel Tower, no one bats an eye.

CLAUDINE BRECHE: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Sixty five-year-old Claudine Breche calls Hollande a family man, but says she hopes the new first lady will be more discreet than the last one. And with an economic crisis and austerity measures imposed by Germany, the sentimental life of our politicians is not exactly our top priority, she says.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CHEERING CROWD)

BEARDSLEY: The crowds cheered as Hollande and Trierweiler danced to "La Vie en Rose" on election night. He has called her the love of his life and many credit the elegantly dressed, twice-divorced mother of three with inspiring the mild mannered Hollande to transform himself into a tough presidential candidate. The couple has hinted that marriage might be in the cards, but that certainly won't be dictated by a little thing like a presidential election.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.