Hollande and the actress: good or bad for his drooping ratings?

French presidential affair is a reminder that the new man in the Elysee Palace was meant to be DSK…

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:27 ON Fri 10 Jan 2014

AT LEAST the French magazine Closer has a tasty scoop this time. When it last made waves it was with illicit long-lens photographs taken of Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, relaxing topless by a private pool in Provence.  

This time they've spilled the beans that Francois Hollande, the least charismatic president the French can remember, has been having a secret affair with a Parisian film actress, Julie Gayet. 

While Hollande is considering suing the magazine for invading his privacy, neither he nor Gayet has yet denied the relationship. Pictures in Closer of Hollande (apparently – he's wearing a helmet) arriving at Gayet's flat on the back of a scooter and of his bodyguard delivering croissants to the same address in the morning would suggest that there's no point in pretending that nothing's going on.

The big question is whether the French public will back Hollande's right to privacy – and his right to cheat on his live-in girlfriend, the fearsome Valerie Trierweiler, who is generally accepted to be the country's First Lady. 

Hollande is by no means the first French president to have a mistress – Giscard d'Estaing, Mitterand and Chirac all played away. But while there were nods and winks among fellow politicians and commentators, their clandestine affairs were never publicly exposed during their presidencies. 

Paris Match waited until 1994, very near the end of of his lengthy presidency, before famously divulging the story that Mitterand had a secret daughter, Mazarine, by his long-term mistress Anne Pingeot.

But no previous president has been as unpopular as Hollande. His approval rating has been hovering around the 20 per cent mark having dropped at one stage last year to as low as 15 per cent.

Looking in from the outside, it is hard to believe just what a disaster this president is considered to be by the majority of French people – not just among the growing ranks of the right-wing National Front, but even among good socialists. 

He has flip-flopped on the big issues – the bankers are villains one day, good guys the next, for instance – and he has provided zero inspiration to a country bedevilled by unemployment and inflation. For many French people he is a laughing stock.

So, will the exposure of his affair help or hinder him?

Against it doing him much good is that he has form in this area and it hasn't helped so far. He began his affair with Valerie Trierweiler while he was still with Segolene Royale, the mother of his four children. It's hardly given him the reputation of a stud.

For it having a positive effect is the general laissez-fair attitude of the French to their leaders having mistresses. When Nicolas Sarkozy was accused in 2010 of seeing the ecology minister behind the back of Carla Bruni, the French psychologist Maryse Vaillant said wives should welcome their husbands having extra-marital affairs as a sign of a healthy marriage.

“Most don’t do it because they no longer love their wives,” she said. “On the contrary, they simply need breathing space. Once women accept that fidelity is not natural but cultural and that infidelity is essential to the psychic functioning of certain men who are still very much in love, it can be very liberating."

Hollande will perhaps be looking to the example of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, president from 1974 to 1981. When Giscard crashed the Ferrari of his friend the film-maker Roger Vadim into a milk float on the Champs Elysee at dawn one morning it was widely assumed that he was returning home after spending the night with an actress. The result? His approval ratings shot up.

Or will the French taste for romance have been dented by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal? It's worth remembering that if DSK had never been found out, he would have been the Socialists' candidate at the last presidential election and Hollande would have remained the grey nearly-man he was always destined to be.

Many on the left in France have found it hard to forgive DSK – not for his sex addiction but for allowing his peccadilloes to be discovered and forcing on them the hopeless Hollande. Though it has to be said that Closer would have needed a lot more than seven pages to tell the story of DSK's dalliances had he been elected president and only then had his habits exposed. · 

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Ah! Monsieur, if 'e is 'aving a go on 'er, maybe 'e is more of a man zan we thought!