France's Unmarried First Lady Comes To America

May 18, 2012
Originally published on May 18, 2012 9:19 pm

Valerie Trierweiler is a journalist and a twice-divorced mother of three teenage boys. She never thought she'd also end up as the first lady of France.

Americans will get their first close-up look at the woman who now calls France's Elysee Palace home when she and her partner, President Francois Hollande, visit the White House this afternoon.

Until a few months ago, Trierweiler, 47, hosted a weekly interview show on a minor French TV network. She is better known for her sharp political writing at big-time photo newsmagazine Paris Match, where she has worked for the past 20 years.

Philippe Labro, who is the founder of Direct 8 TV and who hired Trierweiler, says she is "a very, very typically modern French woman."

"In other words," he says, "she works, she has children, she was divorced, she has a life behind her. She's good-looking, elegant without being flashy. I think the average French woman can identify with her."

One of six children, Trierweiler grew up in a working-class family in central France. Her mother, a cashier at an ice skating rink, told her daughter that work was the only way to independence. Trierweiler met Hollande while covering politics for Paris Match. The couple has been together for six years, and Trierweiler is credited with giving Hollande the force to run for president — both mentally and physically.

Hollande lost 30 pounds, donned new glasses and updated his wardrobe before hitting the campaign trail. Colombe Pringle, editor in chief of Point de Vue magazine, says the couple dancing on election night represents something new.

"For us French, that image of them on that stage and they started dancing, it reminded us more of an American couple, of the Obamas or even the Clintons," he says. "The way you in America — your president and his wife are really a team, and they walk together, hold their hands when they get on the plane."

Hollande and Trierweiler are the first unmarried couple to occupy the French presidential palace, but Pringle says that shouldn't pose a problem for the most part.

"It's just a different way of being a couple. There could be some protocol problems if you go to the Vatican to see the pope, but she doesn't have to go and see the pope," Pringle says. "When Nicolas Sarkozy went, he went alone. But also, he was divorced twice, and the Catholic Church doesn't like divorced people."

Trierweiler, who says she doesn't want to stop working now that she's first lady, became known during the campaign for her fiery tweets. When her own magazine put her on the cover with the headline "Hollande's Charming Asset," she tweeted: "Bravo Paris Match for its sexism, my thoughts go out to all angry women."

Pringle predicts that this first lady will be very different.

"She is expert in politics," he says. "She knows exactly how it works. She knows the system and she knows all about communication, so she can be very helpful for Francois Hollande."

Trierweiler may also get some tips from her American counterpart, first lady Michelle Obama, with whom she is expected to share a tete-a-tete lunch this weekend.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

France's newly elected president, Francois Hollande, will meet with President Obama in Washington today. Hollande is bringing along his companion, Valerie Trierweiler. She follows in the footsteps of Carla Bruni. The wife of the last French president was a model and actress who brought celebrity and glamour to the presidential palace. Valerie Trierweiler is a veteran journalist. She's a divorced mother of three teenage boys. She's not married to the new president and never thought she'd end up as the first lady of France. Here's NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Until a few months ago, journalist Valerie Trierweiler hosted a weekly interview show on a minor French television network. She's better known for her sharp political writing at big time photo newsmag Paris Match, where she's worked for the last 20 years. She took a break during the campaign, but Trierweiler says she's a journalist to her core and doesn't want to stop working. Philippe Labro, founder of Direct 8 TV, hired Trierweiler and is a friend.

PHILIPPE LABRO: She's a very, very typically modern French woman. In other words, she works, she has children, she was divorced, she has a life behind her. She's good looking, elegant, without being flashy. I think the average French woman can identify with her.

BEARDSLEY: Trierweiler was one of six children who grew up in a working class family in central France. Her mother, a cashier at an ice skating rink, told her daughter that work was the only way to independence.

Trierweiler met Hollande covering politics for Paris Match. The couple has been together six years and Trierweiler is credited with giving Hollande the force to run for president - both mentally and physically. He lost 30 pounds, donned new glasses, and updated his wardrobe before hitting the campaign trail. Colombe Pringle, editor-in-chief of Point de Vue magazine, says the couple dancing on election night represents something new.

COLOMBE PRINGLE: For us French, that image of them on that stage and they started dancing, it reminded us more of an American couple - of the Obamas, of even the Clintons. The way you in America, your president and his wife are really a team, and they walk together, hold hands when they get on the plane.

BEARDSLEY: Pringle says the couple's unmarried status shouldn't pose a problem, for the most part.

PRINGLE: It's just a different way of being a couple. There could be some protocol problems if you go to the Vatican to see the pope. But I mean she doesn't have to go and see the pope. When Nicolas Sarkozy went, he went alone. But also he was divorced twice and the Catholic church doesn't like divorced people.

LABRO: Trierweiler became known during the campaign for her fiery tweets. When her own magazine put her on the cover with the title Hollande's Charming Asset, she tweeted: Bravo, Paris Match, for its sexism, my thoughts go out to all angry women. Pringle predicts this first lady will be very different.

PRINGLE: Valerie Trierweiler, she knows all the people, as a journalist, that she went to interview. She is expert in politics. She knows exactly how it works. She knows the system, and she knows all about communication, so she can be very helpful for Francois Hollande.

BEARDSLEY: France's new first couple will meet with the president and Mrs. Obama today. Tomorrow, Trierweiler will share a tete-a-tete lunch with Michelle Obama.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.