Broken French power couple in political showdown

AP News
Posted: Oct 07, 2011 11:55 AM
Broken French power couple in political showdown

Love and power drew Segolene Royal and Francois Hollande together. And love and power pulled them apart.

For the former couple who have four children together, it's been politics first heading into this weekend's Socialist presidential primary in which the two are bitter rivals.

Proving their mettle as political pros, neither Royal nor Hollande showed any hint of their messy breakup as they faced off in debates leading up to Sunday's first-round vote.

After decades of shared life, the bond between Royal and Hollande began to unravel in the run-up to the last presidential election in 2007, as Royal usurped Hollande's role as top Socialist contender for the presidency with electrifying speech performances _ and Hollande took up with another woman, a TV journalist they both knew.

Royal ultimately lost to conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the election _ and lost her man to Valerie Trierweiler, who is still with Hollande.

And in a turnaround for Royal, it is Hollande who top polls among the Socialists this time around.

The breakup was made official after the Socialist defeat. But the ex-couple's complicated relationship still casts a shadow over the political scene _ even though the two behave as if all is well, almost.

Hollande and Royal "are political animals who each certainly saw that the best strategy was ... to completely hide their past," said Jean-Pierre Friedman whose book "Of Power and of Men" was released this week. In the debates, "they appeared neutral, ignoring each other completely. I imagine the situation wasn't very enjoyable."

The 2007 collapse of the couple was especially ill-timed, leaving Royal without the full support of her ex-partner, then Socialist Party leader, as she tried to defeat Sarkozy.

It was a bitter irony that the other woman in the triangle had conducted a hospital interview with Royal, then environment minister, after she gave birth to the couple's fourth child in 1992, according to a book by journalist Serge Raffy on Hollande's current campaign. The now-divorced Trierweiler used her maiden name Massonneau as a reporter for Paris Match.

The interview itself stirred controversy because it mixed Royal's public and private lives _ a taboo in France that has only recently frayed amid the uproar over sex assault allegations against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominque Strauss-Kahn, once considered the top Socialist presidential contender.

In this election, commentators have looked avidly for signs that Royal and Hollande might mix politics and the personal during the official jousting for the 2012 elections. But except for a few raised eyebrows, both candidates were the epitome of composure in the Socialist debates.

"Someone told me the debates were calm. I said, 'No, they were inert.' Their objective was to unite the party," said Friedman, the psychologist.

Off the debate floor, Royal has thrown some darts.

"Can the French cite a single thing he has done in the last 30 years of political life?" Royal was quoted by the daily Le Figaro as saying of Hollande _ an especially acerbic remark that she contends was misconstrued.

Hearing how his ex shot him down, Hollande responded by raising four fingers, signaling their four children. Then, according to an account by the newsweekly Le Nouvel Observateur, he added: "Without counting the preparatory work."

It was a rare letting down of the emotional guard.

Emotions have been locked up tight, at least publicly, for years.

As their relationship crumbled amid Royal's 2007 presidential bid, both she and Hollande maintained a pact of silence. It was broken by Royal the next month after the Socialists lost follow-up legislative elections. She announced that she had asked her partner to leave the family home.

This time around it was Hollande's turn to strike. He told the popular Gala magazine that Trierweiler is "the woman of my life."

Hollande, 57, a placid and portly former Socialist Party chief, has slimmed down and donned stylish glasses, adjustments to his Mr. Everybody persona clearly aimed at making him look more presidential.

In contrast, the 58-year-old Royal's Madonna-shaped face belies nonstop energy and an inner force. But her go-it-alone style has put her at odds with Socialist Party heavyweights _ whom she snubbed, royally, during her 2007 campaign bid.

It had long been assumed that Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief, would become the Socialists' presidential candidate but allegations by a New York hotel maid that he sexually assaulted her upended those plans _ although prosecutors dropped the case.

Polls consistently show Hollande with a clear lead among the six candidates running in the Socialist primary, with Martine Aubry, the most recent Socialist leader, second. Royal is a distant third. The primaries conclude with a two-round vote open to all who share the values of the left.

The unpopular Sarkozy has not declared his intentions, but it is assumed he will seek a second mandate.

The number of people who cast ballots will be a critical indicator of the amount of support the Socialists might expect in the presidential race. The party took control of the Senate last month, a first, but the voting was indirect _ by regional elected officials, not the public.

The hidden emotions of the rival ex-couple during the debate series were all the more impressive because Hollande's companion had captured headlines in the days preceding the final round.

The newsmagazine L'Express claimed that intelligence officers were carrying out a background check on Trierweiler, implying that the Sarkozy hierarchy was spying on the man who could be his main rival in presidential voting. Interior Minister Claude Gueant issued a firm denial.

Royal laughed nervously when asked on a recent talk show if she would be happy should Hollande ultimately win the final test and "the father of your children becomes president."

When pressed, she responded, "I would be behind him _ contrary to what happened (to me) in 2007" _ another glimpse of the lingering venom between the former power couple.