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French 'First Partner' Stirs Debate About Role of First Ladies

  • Lisa Bryant

France's President Francois Hollande, right, and his companion Valerie Trierweiler take part in a march as part of a ceremony in tribute to the memory of Nazi victims in Tulle, southwestern France, June 9, 2012.
PARIS - Journalist Valerie Trierweiler has upended French traditions by being a career-oriented, unmarried "first partner" to newly elected President Francois Hollande. Trierweiler is causing another stir with a controversial Twitter post that is sparking debate about the place and duties of first ladies of France.

Valerie Trierweiler's "tweet" of support to a legislative candidate is stirring controversy in France; first, because of her role as the partner of President Francois Hollande and a prominent journalist. But it is also because the politician she is backing is running against Hollande's former partner and mother of his four children, Segolene Royale.

Not surprisingly, Trierweiler's remarks are providing political fodder for the rival conservative UMP party, which is trying to beat back a leftist sweep in the parliamentary runoff vote next Sunday.

In a television interview Wednesday, former UMP minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet criticized Trieweiler for mixing personal and political issues. Also confusing, she says, is Treiweiler's status as both journalist and first lady.

Many voters are also critical.

One woman speaking on French radio said Trieweiler should not meddle in political life, a sentiment echoed by other voters.

As an unmarried "first partner," Trieweiler is a novelty in France. She considers the first lady concept outmoded, and is continuing to work as a journalist.

But analyst Bruno Cautres says most French do not care about her private life.

"They care about what the president is going to do to cope with the economic crisis, to cope with unemployment, with the budget deficit, but they would not accept that the wife, that the partner of the president intervenes in public life," said Cautres.

Recent French first ladies have also been strong and independent. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, carried on her musical career during his presidency. Bernadette Chirac, the wife of former president Jacques Chirac, was a local politician. Danielle Mitterrand, wife of longtime leader Francois Mitterrand, was a well-known activist.

"It is clear that the wives or the partners of the French president are evolving - like French women, broadly speaking," said Cautres.

President Hollande is supporting the candidacy of his former partner, Segolene Royale, who may become the first female president of the National Assembly if she wins the runoff.