Leave it to a French woman to sex up the first wives club at the G8 Summit.
Over the weekend, Valérie Trierweiler, 47, a twice-divorced broadcaster, journalist and common-law partner to France’s newly elected Socialist president, François Hollande, strode onto the world political stage in peek-a-boo platform heels and a form-fitting black wrap dress that all but dared Fox News to accuse her of living in sin—not that she’d have given a toss if they had. Participating in a tour of the White House led by Michelle Obama and attended by the first wives of Canada, Japan and Italy, Trierweiler looked as glamorously at home in the spotlight as her predecessor, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. But unlike that lapsed critic of bourgeois convention, Trierweiler does not seem to be in any rush to marry her powerful political partner (as Bruni rather hurriedly did before becoming France’s first lady in 2008).
True to Gallic form, the situation is complicated: Hollande’s former wife and the mother of his children, Ségolène Royal, is still a high-ranking Socialist figure. When she was party leader in 2007, Hollande campaigned as her husband, though it later emerged their relationship had broken down romantically some years earlier. This time around, Royal returned the favour by supporting her ex’s candidacy and maintaining amiable public relations in spite of their separation. However, the conservative French press is reporting private friction. According to the tabloid L’Express, Royal “remains the object of profound and irrational jealousy” for Trierweiler.
Rumours of cattiness aside, Trierweiler has taken up her unconventional new role as unmarried partner to a world leader with a mixture of elegance and open ambivalence. In addition to eschewing marriage, Trierweiler has told the media she is not ready to give up her career as a political journalist and television broadcaster. “In France, a first lady has no status, and therefore she isn’t supposed to do anything else,” she recently told the press. “My perception of life is not to ask François Hollande, who isn’t the father of my children, to support me financially.”
Her apprehension at becoming the woman behind the man stands in stark contrast to a political spouse like Michelle Obama, who abandoned a stellar public sector career in order to help with her husband’s campaign and then presidency. Canada’s own Laureen Harper has never played anything but a supporting domestic partner role. While the notion of an openly careerist (let alone unmarried) North American first lady is still unheard of, in Europe and the U.K. the winds of change have been blowing for some time. Cherie Blair famously continued her legal career during her husband’s time in office, a tradition less doggedly continued by Samantha Cameron, who remains a part-time consultant with Smythson, the upscale accessories label where she was once creative director. The shift has been helped by the emergence of male political spouses who, unsurprisingly, seem far less keen to give up their careers and identities when their partners rise to power. Angela Merkel’s husband, Joachim Sauer, is an accomplished but intensely media-shy quantum chemist and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt is married to Stephen Kinnock, head of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and son of the former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. They live separately for work but remain married and have two daughters who reside with their mother in Copenhagen.
While it’s now fairly common for European political spouses to continue their careers (even at the risk of conflict of interest), the decision not to marry may prove more socially tricky. Joachim Gauck, the newly elected German president, lives with his girlfriend, Daniela Schadt, a former politics editor at one of the country’s biggest dailies. He has been separated from the wife and mother of his four children since 1991. Like Trierweiler and Hollande, the German president and his partner may face difficulties when visiting socially conservative countries. While Trierweiler was invited to all G8 spousal events (according to officials there is no official protocol governing the treatment of unwed political partners), she may not be so welcome at official functions in places like Saudi Arabia or Qatar, where domestic relationships outside of marriage are still deeply frowned upon. Trickier still is the issue of how to treat a singleton leader’s temporary squeeze—outgoing Dutch PM Mark Rutte is a bachelor who occasionally took his country’s married Crown Princess Máxima to official events (though for political rather than romantic reasons). Even more controversial still is the issue of how to treat a same-sex partner. The Icelandic PM, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, is the world’s first openly lesbian head of state. She married her partner, the playwright Jónína Leósdóttir, when Iceland legalized gay marriage in 2010.
While it’s not clear what sort of social change (if any) the appearance of such unconventional first spouses might affect, it does suggest a trend away from the traditional role of a supportive political spouse. As Trierweiler put it in an interview last week, “I haven’t been raised to serve a husband. I built my entire life on the idea of independence.” It will be interesting to see if she can hold the party line.