Tweet sets off ‘battle Royal’ between first lady and Hollande’s former partner

At first, everyone thought her Twitter account must have been hacked.

But no: here was the new first lady of France, Valérie Trierweiler, the companion of President François Hollande, tweeting her apparent opposition to Hollande’s previous partner and mother of Hollande’s four children, Ségolène Royal, who was also the Parti socialiste‘s 2007 presidential candidate.  Royal is fighting for her political life in a tough second-round runoff where she faces an unexpectedly tough fight from renegade leftist Olivier Falorni.

While the entire Parti socialiste high guard from Hollande himself to party president Martine Aubry to prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault have all called for Falorni to step down in favor of Royal, Trierweiler tweeted this yesterday:

Courage à Olivier Falorni qui n’a pas démérité, qui se bat aux côtés des rochelais depuis tant d’ années dans un engagement désintéressé. [Good luck to Olivier Falorni who is a worthy candidate. For years he has been fighting with selfless commitment for the people of La Rochelle.]

Needless to say, when there’s just a week between the two rounds of a parliamentary election, this has been an unwelcome headline for Hollande, crowding out other political news both yesterday and today.

In the first round in Charente-Maritime 17, Royal won just 32.03% to Falorni’s 28.91% — Sally Chadjaa, the UMP candidate, won just 19.47%, but did not qualify for this Sunday’s runoff.  The result caught the national media off guard and was one of the biggest surprises in Sunday’s mostly unsurprising first round.  Royal, who was running in the constituency for the first time, had been promised the presidency of the Assemblée nationale by Hollande, after graciously campaigning for Hollande at a large rally in Rennes earlier in the spring (shown together above).

Although a poll today, conducted before and during The Tweet, showed that Falorni leads Royal 58% to 42%, mostly on the strength of UMP votes, Ayrault has again called on Falorni to step aside.  It is customary, when two or more leftist candidates advance to the second round, for the second-place candidate to step aside for the first-round winner.  Falorni, who has been a longtime ally to Hollande and who actually lives in the constituency, has refused.

The tweet highlights at least four immediate problems for Hollande and the Parti socialiste, who hope to emerge from Sunday’s elections with an outright majority of at least 289 seats in the Assemblée nationale:

Not-so-normal president.  Just as much as his anti-austerity policy platform, Hollande won the presidency because of his promise to be a ‘normal’ president after French voters indicated they were weary of Nicolas Sarkozy’s intermingling of public and private lives, starting with his high-profile courtship and whirlwind marriage to Carla Bruni in the first year of his presidency.  Say what you will of Bruni, she never caused any problems like this, and the media have been quick to jump on a catfight between Hollande’s current and previous lovers, an anything-but-normal distraction.

Backlash against the Parti socialiste. At exactly the time when Hollande should have hoped for a quiet week, plodding along to Sunday’s confirmatory vote, the Trierweiler brouhaha could depress turnout or otherwise cause undecided voters to turn away from the Pari socialiste.  It was already an open question as to whether the Parti socialiste would win 289 seats Sunday; if it does not win an outright majority, it will be forced to govern with the help of the greens or the far-left communists.  If the Socialists don’t, in fact, win 289 or more seats, the distraction of Trierweiler and The Tweet will prove a handy culprit for blame.

Hollande’s Royal problem.  Before yesterday, if Royal had lost the second round, she would have lost it on the basis of making a poor strategic decision, notwithstanding Falorni’s flouting the Parti socialiste.  But now, if she loses the second round, she will be able to blame Trierweiler’s  interferening impropriety.  No longer able to appoint her to the presidency of the Assemblée nationale, Hollande will now have to find another role for Royal who, despite a career in decline since 2007 — she lost a fight for the party presidency in 2008 and gained less than 7% in her presidential bid in the party’s 2011 presidential primaries — remains a charismatic and popular figure throughout France, the other half of France’s one-time fairy tale power couple.

Hollande’s Trierweiler problem.  despite early coverage applauding her decision to remain employed as a journalist for Paris Match, Trierweiler’s role has always been a tricky issue for Hollande.  She is not married to Hollande, and she is the first partner of a French president to remain employed.  She is seen as a bit aloof and cold, she compared herself to Eleanor Roosevelt in her first post-election piece in Paris Match and her tweets have been controversial in the past.  The French media have tiptoed around her alleged jealousy of Royal in the past, but are now likely to address the Royal issue directly. The Tweet yesterday was entirely inappropriate, and she will now face an uphill fight to salvage her image in the press, which was tenuous at best before The Tweet.

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