Watch out Penelope Fillon
As France risks getting a British woman as its First Lady, Patrick Marnham warns Penelope Fillon to watch out
The recent history of domestic life in the Elysée Palace may not be encouraging for Penelope Fillon, née Clarke, who grew up in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire. The grandeur of the Elysée and the executive powers enjoyed by the presidents of the Fifth Republic seem to go to their heads; and her husband, François Fillon, is a strong candidate to win next year’s presidential election.
A low point may have been reached when the present occupant, François Hollande, was elected after campaigning as ‘President Normal’. Hollande was never entirely ‘normal’ – or at least not in the Abergavenny sense of the term. Although he was the father of four children, he never married their mother, Ségolène Royal, herself an experienced politician and a former presidential candidate.
Hollande arrived at the Elysée with a mistress called Valérie Trierweiler, a Paris Match journalist who had left her husband to live with Hollande. On moving into the palace, Trierweiler demanded to be officially recognised as France’s First Lady. She also appeared to be insanely jealous of Ségolène. This situation amused Madame Royal, who said, ‘It’s not the last one she should be worrying about, it’s the next one.’
This remark proved all too prophetic when in year two of Hollande’s presidency he was discovered riding out through the gates of the Elysée on the pillion of a gendarme’s motorcycle to visit his new squeeze – gorgeous, pouting Julie Gayet, an actress and film producer. The president’s face was entirely covered by a motorcycle helmet but he could be identified by his socks – which he had failed to change following his return from an official visit overseas. When the news broke, Trierweiler was reported to have thrown a temper tantrum in the palace and was taken to a private hospital under sedation. Shortly afterwards she was publicly dismissed.
Hollande was preceded by President Nicolas Sarkozy. At the time of his election in 2007 he was married to his second wife, Cécilia, who, in the middle of the night during the election campaign, went to the local police station to lodge a complaint about her husband’s behaviour. The marriage barely survived the inauguration before Cécilia departed for a boyfriend in New York and was in due course replaced by the Italian supermodel, song writer and singer Carla Bruni. Sarko and Bruni were quickly married, the internet was flooded with examples of her soupy lyrics and Paris Match carried romantic pictures of the pair on their North African honeymoon, a development that caused many in France to curl up their toes.
But such embarrassments are not a recent phenomenon; there is a long history of untoward events at the palace.
In 1917, as French troops were refusing orders in the trenches in Picardy and being shot for mutiny, an orangutan escaped from the circus at the Rond-point of the Champs Elysées and climbed into the Elysée’s extensive gardens. There the ape surprised the wife of President Poincaré, who was dozing in a hammock, and wrapped her in its embrace. Then it took her by the waist and attempted to carry her up into a tree. Madame Poincaré, une belle Italienne, made a considerable fuss and the orangutan was placed before a firing squad.
But the misadventure of Henriette Poincaré is just one example of the hazards faced by the women of the Elysée Palace. The official residence seems to have become the haunted house of a stable relationship. The only ones to have survived without damage are those who have stayed away from it.
This was certainly the case for Madame Charles de Gaulle, who arrived in 1959 to be welcomed by a 21-gun salute. Appalled by this behaviour, she only ever slept in the palace under protest. Known as Tante Yvonne, she was a devout Catholic and a woman of simple, old-fashioned habits who insisted on walking alone to the local traiteurs and crémeries to buy the president’s lunch. They walked off happily together into the sunset in 1969, delighted to see the back of the Elysée.
Tante Yvonne’s successor, Claude Pompidou, tall, sportive, mondaine, modern art lover, married to an exRothschild banker who founded the Pompidou Centre, was by contrast very much at home in elegant Paris. When the ‘tired and emotional’ British foreign secretary George Brown sat down beside her at an official banquet and promptly invited her to enjoy a Madame Poincaré moment she replied – ‘Mais non, Monsieur Brown! Not before the soup.’ Madame Pompidou relished life in the Elysée but she made the mistake of redecorating it in ultra-modern
style and this seems to have awakened the palace curse. No sooner had she installed stainless steel walls and blended the furniture and tapestries of Louis XV with the art of Max Ernst and Yves Klein than she became the victim of salacious rumours. It was said that she was a lesbian who took part in fashionable orgies in the 16e arrondissement and was in some way involved in a murder scandal.
Next came Anne-aymone Marie Josèphe Christiane Sauvage de Brantès, daughter of the Princesse Aymone de Faucigny-lucinge et Coligny, better known as Madame Valéry Giscard d’estaing. Her husband’s name was really Valéry Giscard but his father thought it would be nice to have an upgrade and decided to call himself by the name of an 18th-century Admiral Giscard d’estaing to whom he was distantly related on the wrong side of the blanket. Giscard further convinced himself that he was descended from Louis XV by one of the Queen’s chambermaids, and installed a portrait of the king in the Elysée. (He was nicknamed ‘Louis XV’ by the Elysée staff). As befitted his illustrious, if imaginary, connections, Giscard became a stickler for etiquette and instructed his butler to make sure that he was always served first even at private supper parties to which women had been invited.
Despite the fact that Anne-aymone was very shy, Giscard insisted that she should be the first presidential wife to play a semi-official role, appearing, two paces behind him, at all state occasions. He was less demanding in private, allowing her to remain at home in the Rue de Bénouville while he used the palace as his office, slept there and drove himself round Paris at night, leaving a sealed envelope on his desk with the address where he was to be contacted if needed. Very early one morning, while driving home after a night spent with a seductive young lady photographer, Giscard collided with a milk cart and had to take a taxi back to the Elysée. His wife maintained a dignified silence and eventually she set up a charity for disabled children.
Giscard served only one seven-year term, being defeated in 1981 by his Socialist opponent François Mitterrand, who was president for fourteen years. Despite his status as tribune of the people, Mitterrand turned out to be at least as monarchical as his predecessor. He was the first Socialist candidate to be elected to the post and the only president of the 5th republic who actually was a royalist as a young man.
Throughout his term of office he claimed to be living with his wife, Danielle, at their very attractive house in the Quartier Latin. In reality he spent most of the time with his mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their teenage daughter, Mazarine, in a spacious government apartment overlooking the Seine. Meanwhile Danielle was consoled with her own office and staff in the Elysée from where she pursued her personal political interests, chiefly in Latin America.
It was Danielle who insisted that Mitterrand’s second family should remain a state secret and so the president employed an old friend who was a secret service officer and arms trader called François de Grossouvre to protect his privacy. De Grossouvre, who was the godfather of Mazarine, was responsible for blocking any public references to her existence, using any means necessary to do so. On one occasion a maverick journalist was kidnapped, beaten and locked in a cellar for a week to encourage him to toe the line. De Grossouvre also had an office in the Elysée and was backed by a staff of spooks. He was found dead from a gunshot wound at his desk in April 1994, one year before the end of Mitterrand’s second term: the verdict was suicide.
So, for Penelope from Abergavenny, ‘Tante Yvonne’ seems to be the safest model to follow.
Patrick Marnham lived in Abergavenny for eight years.