President's personal life hits French stage
A vow to keep his private life out of the public eye helped sweep Francois Hollande to power last year as France's president, attracting voters tired of his flashy predecessor's amorous exploits. Now, the words of the one-time dull Socialist are back to bite him in a new play.
"Mr. Normal, His Women and Me," a comedy of errors set in the presidential Elysee Palace, is inspired by a real-life Twitter scandal involving his glamorous live-in girlfriend, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and the elegant and influential mother of Hollande's four children, politician Segolene Royal.
The affair last year shook up Hollande's carefully cultivated dull image and hurt his popularity. And it immediately caught the attention of director and writer Bernard Uzan.
"When I first saw the tweet... it was a vaudeville before my eyes," said Uzan, referring to a message sent by Trierweiler during last June's legislative elections expressing support for Royal's political opponent.
Days later, Royal lost her bid for a parliamentary seat. Widely criticized as a vindictive move, the tweet went viral and dominated French media for days.
When writing the play, Uzan says he interviewed real politicians and used genuine quotes and anecdotes.
Indeed, the characters are very thinly disguised. The play features a portly, bespectacled protagonist called Francois Gouda - named after a Dutch cheese - who's chased around the Elysee by an obsessive ex-partner, Marjolaine Loyal, and bossy First Lady Nathalie Valtriere, who likes designer dresses.
Though it is fictional, the play - which opened on Jan. 24 - points out some uncomfortable truths about the last nine months, which have seen Hollande's popularity plunge at the same speed as the country's economic fortunes.
"I, as president, won't expose my private life to the eyes of the French," says Gouda, evoking Hollande's pledge a month before his election victory in May to not mix up his public and private lives.
Hollande's words were calculated to distance himself from his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. He was criticized for letting his private life get too public during his presidency, divorcing his second wife Cecilia and marrying his third, former supermodel and singer Carla Bruni-Sarkozy while in office.
Two months after winning the election, it was Hollande in the hot seat, answering an uncomfortable question on Bastille Day about his own love triangle. His 27-year-old son, Thomas, was dragged into to the affair, dubbed "tweetgate," to defend his mother, Royal.
Mirroring the image political satirists paint of Hollande, the play shows the presidential character as incapable of controlling the two warring women who throw insults at each other.
To chuckles, an exasperated Gouda says, "I never asked to be here ... Why can't I just resign, like the pope?"
Actor Daniel Jean Colloredo plays the president as a weak, ridiculous leader - steered by the characters around him, including his aide who tries to teach him the confidence to say "I am a winner" to a mirror. He eventually manages with a weak "we-we-winner."
"He really doesn't have the strength of character to choose either woman," said Colleredo.
Hollande's ex-partner Royal was back in the news this week causing controversy, with an announcement of her appointment as vice president of the new government-funded Public Investment Bank.
Top business leader Laurence Parisot questioned Royal's experience for the job, while journalists have called it a political appointment from the Elysee to keep Royal happy - a charge she vehemently denies.
The play also tries to address the key question on everyone's lips: What is the irresistible appeal of Hollande, who has been nicknamed "flanby" after a bland custard dessert?
"We asked ourselves this, too. How can this (love triangle) have come about?" says Dominique Merot, the actress who plays Loyal. "He must have a lot of charm behind closed doors."
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