Unpopular but underestimated? Valérie Trierweiler’s legacy as French first lady

To say that Valérie Trierweiler has had a rough time of it lately would be the understatement of the century. The now former French first lady has been humiliated in the world’s media over revelations of President François Hollande cheating on her, holed up in hospital, dumped by the same Hollande over a press release, and dubbed the most unpopular first lady in recent French history.

She has certainly been unpopular: according to a recent poll, only 8% of respondents had a positive view of her, compared to 28% for her predecessor, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and a flattering 46% for Bernadette Chirac.

Trierweiler also clearly struggled with the delicate role of first lady, as best demonstrated by l’affaire du tweet, as it came to be known. That was in June 2012, when she most unwisely tweeted her support for a candidate running against Hollande’s ex, Ségolène Royal, for a seat in parliament (Royal lost). In India on Tuesday, she told journalists in off-the-record remarks that it was the one thing she regretted from her 19-month stint as unofficial first lady.

But let’s be fair: it wasn’t all bad. Trierweiler notched up several victories on the politico-legal front. In May 2013, it emerged that her predecessor Carla Bruni-Sarkozy had cost French taxpayers three times more than she did, mainly in terms of staff. Later, there was controversy when it was revealed that the website for Bruni-Sarkozy’s charitable foundation cost a whopping €410,000 of public money.

A few months later, a lawsuit filed by an anti-Hollande businessman who claimed that she was embezzling French taxpayers’ money - this through not being married to the president - was easily thrown out of court.

Former French First Lady Valérie Trierweiler. Photo: AFP

But more than anything, her recent charity work in India, to raise awareness of child malnutrition, is in fact a continuation of an approach she began while still at the Élysée palace.

A few months after becoming first lady, the 48-year-old became an ambassador for France Libertés, an NGO founded by that other Première Dame, Danielle Mitterrand. It focuses on human rights and access to water. Last month, Trierweiler told the press that the late Madame Mitterrand was in fact her “model”, since “she was not afraid to carry high the values of the left; she would not be gagged”.

Trierweiler had taken up the cause of child neglect, after reading "La Démesure", an autobiographical account by a young woman who was beaten by her father. The first lady organised a conference on the issue and was pushing for it to be declared France’s flagship cause for 2014 (the choice will be announced in February or March). In a New Year's message on Twitter, she reminded her followers of the shocking statistics: in France, two children die every day of neglect at the hands of adults, mainly their parents.

But her most high-profile action to date was in December 2013, when she hosted the first ladies of two dozen African countries, on the sidelines of an African security summit in Paris. The meeting focused on the scourge of rape as a weapon of war. Together, the first ladies called for an end to the silence and impunity surrounding these crimes. Trierweiler had witnessed the importance of this cause herself, by visiting a hospital in Bukavu, in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in July. This is the hospital where the award-winning doctor Denis Mukwege treats women who are victims of sexual violence. Unfortunately, the initiative at the Paris summit was almost completely overshadowed by the death of Nelson Mandela the night before.

In a radio interview ahead of that summit, Trierweiler had said “I just need to be useful”. She echoed those words in India this week, after visiting a children’s hospital in Mumbai, saying “I have the impression I'm being useful for something”. After her trip, she tweeted a photo of an undernourished Indian child, again pointing out a barely believable statistic: “In India, a child dies of hunger every 30 seconds”.

With the former first lady promising to continue her charity work, comparisons with the late Princess Diana are inevitable. It seems that Trierweiler has now finally found her place. In fact, she had already found it.
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I like her. She is an intelligent, strong woman who seems to want to make a positive contribution to the world. She has behaved with class in a most difficult situation. I don't know if she is arrogant. She has a strong face with a serious countenance. Maybe that makes her seem arrogant. I'm not sure why the Fench don't like her. It's not like Paris is short of arrogant women.
Bill Clinton here. Hillary is at the laundrymay doing laundry. Fancy coming over, enough time for you know what...excuse the pun! Kisses, Bill Clinton, here's my mobile number..

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