It is disorienting to watch the French try to be nice. They don’t scorn you as much when you try out your pidgin French. France’s first unmarried first lady, Valérie Trierweiler, is conducting a global charm offensive in an effort to escape her nickname, “The Rottweiler.” And the slinky former first lady, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, is promoting the virtues of being genial as she hawks her latest CD of breathy French songs and her husband breathlessly hints at a comeback.
“I feel better when I’m nice,” Carla told The Daily Beast.
As Elizabeth Becker writes in “Overbooked,” the snobby French are ambivalent about being the No. 1 destination of the 21st century. The erstwhile Napoleonic Empire is a little embarrassed about its reliance on something as fluffy as tourism. But employment and foreign investment are spiraling, so the French are forced to fall back on their “enchanting delightfulness,” as Mark Twain called it. They must, sadly, put on le happy face.
The city of Paris published a six-page booklet called “Do you speak touriste?” to help taxi drivers, restaurant workers, hoteliers, museum staffers and merchants woo various nationalities.
Americans, the manual advises, must have their Wi-Fi, fancy hotels and dinner at 6; the Spanish crave “freebies,” amusement parks and dinner between 9 and 11; the Japanese bow and desire reassurance but will complain when they get home if things were not right; the Germans demand cleanliness; the Chinese like a “simple smile” as they leave for a day of luxury shopping; and the Brazilians are “easily tactile” and want a “totally poetic experience.”
Trierweiler’s seduction attempt follows a rocky start. The pretty but prickly 48-year-old helped transform President Fran?ois Hollande from a bike-riding schlub who lacked confidence, because he was competing in Socialist politics with his luminous partner, S?gol?ne Royal. But on election night last year, the French noticed Val?rie’s flash of jealousy when Hollande walked across stage to thank S?gol?ne, and Val?rie’s subsequent demand that he kiss her on the lips. Then she sent out a nasty tweet when Paris Match, her employer, covered her like any other first lady and a reputation for arrogance grew.
She was mocked as “the first girlfriend” in a country that still wants kings and queens to look up to. Compared with her feline predecessor, Carla, Val?rie was pegged as more catty. She had to apologize for a tweet supporting the opponent of Royal, the official Socialist candidate, in the legislative elections, and Hollande was mocked for failing to control his femmes or France. “It is not a harmonious triangle,” sighed one French journalist.
Hollande, who faced the ire of traditional marriage champions for legalizing gay marriage, sidestepped tradition himself. He didn’t marry Royal, the mother of his four children. And, while he brings Trierweiler on official travel and splits his time with her in the ?lys?e Palace and an apartment in the 15th arrondissement, he hasn’t saved her from the awkward position of being a single first lady.
One political cartoon showed Val?rie asking Hollande to marry her and him replying, “Do you think I’m gay or what?”
In the last five months, Trierweiler has done her best to impress the French, plunging into causes like autism and domestic violence against children. Last week, she traveled to Congo, where she went to a hospital to meet women who had been raped by militia members.
Le Point, a weekly right-wing magazine, called Val?rie’s “Operation Win Over” a mission impossible, noting that she is even more universally disliked than the hapless Hollande, the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic.
Her conservative critics complained that she was costing strapped taxpayers too much, given that she’s not even married to the president, but it turned out Carla cost more. A supermarket chain heir, Xavier Kemlin, pressed charges against Trierweiler for embezzlement, arguing that “our taxes” shouldn’t pay for “the house, the food, the staff and the trips” of a woman he views as no more than an official mistress.
At the Bastille Day parade, where Val?rie glowed in a hot pink dress and wide smile, some anti-gay-marriage protesters waved a banner reading: “Val?rie: wife, concubine or chick? Fiscally, the president must choose.”
In a recent TV interview with Alessandra Sublet, Trierweiler offered humanizing tidbits such as “I still do my sons’ laundry” and “I still vacuum sometimes to relax.” She admitted that it had been hard to go from the observer to the observed; she had to give up her job as a top political reporter at Paris Match and move to the culture section.
She ignored Carla’s remark about her conjugal status to Vanity Fair’s Maureen Orth that “it’s not easy not to be married” in the role. Asked if she and Hollande would marry, Val?rie replied, “What for? Companion is a really nice word because it means we accompany them. We are together because we love each other and not because we have to be because we’re married.”