Portrait Of A Reluctant First Lady And The Price Of A Loaded Tweet

Valérie Trierweiler, companion of France's new President François Hollande, wants to keep up her journalism career. She wants to be free to speak -- and tweet -- her mind. But when she took a political slap at Hollande's ex, France was r

Valérie Trierweiler, First Lady of France (Cyclotron)
Valérie Trierweiler, First Lady of France (Cyclotron)
David Revault-d’Allonnes and Thomas Wieder

PARIS - On the day after François Hollande's election last month, Le Monde asked his companion Valérie Trierweiler how she saw her role. "Being a first lady is a second role, and I have to make sure it stays that way," she answered. "My word shouldn't replace the president's, or cause problems for him."

And then she added: "I will be very careful about my tweets, my voice has a new impact."

Trierweiler, a longtime political journalist active on social media, thought about closing her account. But now, just one month later, she has posted a tweet wishing "courage" to the opponent of a legislative candidate Hollande had just publicly supported -- who just happens to be Ségolène Royal, the President's former longtime companion and mother of his four children.

Maybe that is the essence of Valérie Trierweiler: an anthology of assertions as peremptory as they are contradictory; acts that often clash with declared principles. "Paradox makes a woman," says a source close to the presidential couple.

Two clashing images

She is still finding herself and she doesn't shy away from it. On the French public radio station France Inter on June 7, she said that she found the "First Lady" label "quaint," and that she wanted to "renew" it. Apparently the French people she's met had already made suggestions: "France's trump of hearts' and "first journalist" were two.

That the two images clash doesn't seem to shock her: the first hails back to the overused clichés of a first lady fit only to show her pretty face; the second refers to the modern, active woman, protective of her independence, by no means prepared to interrupt a successful career or to take a back seat to her companion.

Until now, she had tried to iron out the contradictions. She decided to continue working as a journalist, but gave up the political beat. In October 2011 she had already stopped hosting the "2012: Campaign Portraits' show on Direct 8 cable televsion. After Hollande's election, she had it known that she would continue working for the Paris Match weekly, but that she wouldn't deal with "French news," restricting herself to cultural reports.

Parallel to this, she explained that she would keep in line with the traditional role of the first lady, "volunteer work with the French people," like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who continued her singing career while heading a foundation for education and culture.

When a journalist lectures journalists

But it has quickly become clear how hard it would be to juggle all of these roles. On June 4, infuriated by a behind-the-scenes piece about the official presidential photograph on Le Monde's website, she called the editorial staff asking that they remove two pictures that showed her taking part in the shooting in the Elysée gardens. Just before the elections, she had sent a tweet asking her "colleagues' not to "camp in front of the residence" she shared with Hollande in Paris.

A journalist lecturing journalists in the name of the first lady's peace of mind, this was unprecedented. But then on Tuesday, at exactly 11:56 a.m., Trierweiler took it to a whole new level, with a tweet that has landed with a thud in the middle of tightly contested legislative campaign. The first lady has seemingly undermined Hollande, twice over, endorsing the Socialist insurgent candidate running against the anointed Royal, with whom the president had reestablished a solid political alliance after the couple's separation five years ago. What role was Trierweiler in when she sent that tweet?

"I have never seen a journalist calling to vote for a Socialist dissident," said a flummoxed party leader.

For her first column in Paris Match since she acquired an office and advisors at the Elysée, Trierweiler chose to review Claude-Catherine Kiejman's biography of Eleanor Rossevelt. It was seen as a mere hint. One forgets that the book's subtitle was: "First Lady and Rebel."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Wikimedia Commons/Cyclotron

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!