France's Unmarried First Lady Can Teach Us A Lot About Marriage

There's a new French president, and with him, a new French First Lady. But—shhh—they're not married. 

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There's a new French president, and with him, a new French First Lady. Nicolas Sarkozy has been defeated by Socialist François Hollande, whose girlfriend—she prefers "companion"—is 47-year-old Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist for Paris Match who is also well-known in France as a political talk-show presenter. So out with the old (aka, Carla Bruni, who married Sarkozy in 2008), and in with the new not-wife.

Back in 2008, Maureen Dowd wrote of "the Carla effect, as it's known in Paris," in an column in The New York Times. "The French are different from you and me," Dowd wrote. "If an American first lady, or would-be first lady, described herself as a 'tamer of men' and had a 'man-eating' past filled with naked pictures, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, sultry prone CD covers, breaking up marriages, bragging that she believes in polygamy and polyandry rather than monogamy, and having a son with a married philosopher whose father she had had an affair with, it would take more than an appearance on 'The View' to sweeten her image."

Given our American reaction to something so inconsequential as the sight of former first lady, now Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton without makeup, it would seem she's right. Americans have a habit of being occasionally puritanical and full of outrage about dumb, often irrelevant, stuff. We freaked out about Carla Bruni back then. It's only reasonable that the idea of an unmarried, working woman who will assume the role, if not the official name, of French First Lady—a title she won't technically hold unless the two are married—would freak (some of) us out further.

An op-ed in The Chicago Tribune by Marvin Zonis bears a resemblance to Dowd's back in 2008. Zonis writes, "Imagine if President-elect Francois Hollande and Valerie Trierweiler were Americans. Let's look at the facts. They are unmarried. They apparently started their relationship in 2006 while Hollande was living with his previous partner, Segolene Royal. Hollande and Royal broke up because of Hollande's infidelity... Trierweiler, divorced twice, has three children, all with her second husband. She insists she won't give up her career as a TV presenter and political journalist. She insists she will earn her own income so she will not be dependent on the state for her support and that of her children. It will be awkward, to put it gently, for her to do so."

Zonis goes on to say that Trierweiler is "plenty tough" and shares an anecdote in which she slapped a colleague at Paris Match for saying something she considered sexist. (The woman has the nickname "Rottweiler," for goodness sake!) Like Trierweiler, Hollande seems unimpressed by the idea of adhering to traditions for the sake of traditions: Somewhat beautifully, when asked whether Hollande would marry Trierweiler for the sake of appearances now that he's president, he responded that protocol was not a good enough reason, and that it was their decision to make. But in America, where things are different, Zonis writes that "protocol" is "probably the best reason" for a political marriage. Could a Hollande-and-Trierweiler situation ever work here, with an American president?

Probably not. Not right now, anyway. Especially set against the backdrop of another state banning gay marriage, the obsession with "traditional" marriage (even as things slowly, hopefully surely, change) shows how deeply hypocritical we have become. Better a married politician having an affair with another woman (or man) than an unmarried politician and his committed companion in the White House, seems to be the message. But in the non-political realm of America, fewer people are marrying, and more and more people are getting divorces (even as states persist in denying the right to wed to some of those who want it the most). Maybe the French are doing it right, by not really caring— not enough, anyway, to vote against a politician for his lifestyle choice. Certainly, Hollande seems a better bet than Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a "married man" who may well have been the next president of France if not for, well, you know.

Supporting the new unmarried form of political couplings, in New York City, we have Mayor Bloomberg and Diana Taylor and Andrew Cuomo and Sandra Lee; powerful men in long-term relationships, but not wed to, powerful women. Both of those men have also been criticized as "unmarried fornicators" by State Senator Ruben Diaz Jr. Maybe the key way in which France is different from America is that it has fewer of these types mouthing off about "unmarried fornication"? Or maybe, as Dowd writes in her recent column on the new French president, "As Steven Erlanger, The Times’s Paris bureau chief, noted on the TV channel France 24, sometimes it seems as if 'a complicated amorous life is a requirement to be a French president.'” Yet it's not that the amorous lives of American politicians aren't complicated (look at John Edwards). It's just that American politicians try to hide them.

Whether or not the French—or Hollande and Trierweiler—are doing it right, they appear to be a rather adorable pair, regardless of their marital status. Dowd writes that Hollande experienced something of a transformation under the gentle hand of his "Rottweiler": "'Basking in the regard of 'the love of my life,' as he calls her, he slimmed down, donned less nerdy glasses, and manned up for the big debate." What is it they say? First comes love, then comes (maybe) marriage.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.