New headache for French president as magazine alleges affair

Sylvie Maligorne
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A combination of pictures shows French actress Julie Gayet and President Francois Hollande

French President Francois Hollande faces a new headache after a magazine reported he routinely spends the night with an actress.

Hollande reacted furiously to the allegation -- backed up by photos reportedly showing the president entering the flat of actress Julie Gayet -- but did not deny it. He threatened legal action over what he called an attack on his right to privacy.

"It's a real passion that has... turned their lives upside down and makes them take insane risks," Closer said in a special edition Friday detailing the 59-year-old president's alleged infidelity.

The seven-page spread printed photos of Gayet, 41, arriving at a flat in an upmarket part of Paris on December 30, not far from the Elysee palace where Hollande lives.

Half-an-hour later, a man whom it identifies as Hollande's bodyguard inspects the apartment block before the arrival of a scooter with two men on board, one of whom it says is Hollande -- although his face is fully concealed under a helmet.

The bodyguard, however, does show his face and is identified as part of Hollande's official security detail.

The next morning, according to Closer, the bodyguard delivers croissants to the couple, and three hours later, a helmeted man is pictured mounting a chauffeur-driven scooter and driving off. Gayet later leaves the flat too.

In a statement to AFP, Hollande slammed the report as an attack on the right to privacy, to which he "like every other citizen has a right".

He said he was "looking into possible action, including legal action" against the weekly magazine. But he did not deny the allegations.

French newspapers warned Saturday that Hollande's alleged affair risked overshadowing his much-anticipated announcement of a new tack in efforts to kindle growth and create jobs.

Whilst largely defending the unmarried Hollande's right to a private life, national and regional dailies admitted the hundreds of journalists at his bi-annual press conference on Tuesday will only have one question in mind.

"Having to explain, a few minutes before sketching out his vision for France, instead, what he has in mind for his relationship (with Trierweiler) promises to be a highly interesting performance," the Sud-Ouest newspaper wrote.

Meanwhile British newspapers on Saturday leapt on the allegations, splashing the story over the front pages and poking fun at the president.

The story even made page one of the normally staid Financial Times as the British press described the claims as a "crisis" for Hollande.

Both The Times and the Financial Times ran editorials on the subject, while pictures of Gayet dominated the front of at least three national newspapers.

The Times ran with the headline 'Oui Mr President'. The actress, the scooter and an affair of state.'

Hollande officially lives with his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, a journalist for whom he left fellow Socialist politician Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children.

But the two are not married, and Trierweiler -- whom Hollande described as "the love of my life" in 2010 -- is referred to in American media as "the first girlfriend".

Gayet is an established television and film actress, and also appeared in one of Hollande's 2012 election campaign commercials, describing the then presidential candidate as "marvellous" and "humble and a really good listener".

Rumours the two were having an affair had until now stayed under the radar, with the mother-of-two -- who is separated from her husband, Argentinian filmmaker Santiago Amigorena -- filing a legal complaint in March over the speculation.

In December, though, a French actor, Stephane Guillon, made laughing innuendos on the subject during a talk show where he and Gayet were promoting a film in which they co-star.

Closer's publication director, Laurence Pieau, said the magazine decided to dig into the rumours after seeing Guillon's joking jibes, and after a serious news magazine, L'Express, last month mentioned -- without detailing -- Hollande's "secret escapades".

Confirmation that Gayet has an apartment near the Elysee and photos taken by the magazine over several days showing the president's bodyguard there, and then the man identified as the president himself, clinched it, Pieau told AFP.

"I know that we are talking about the truth, and we wouldn't have taken the risk to publish this news if we weren't sure of our information," she said.

"From the time we had the photos that verified the information, and what was rumour became news... we didn't hesitate" to publish the story, Pieau said.

"A little group of people were talking about it, laughing about it on TV sets. Our job is to let a large number of people know. That's what we're here for."

The alleged liaison comes at a time of deep unpopularity for Hollande, accused of being inefficient at a time of sky-high unemployment and general economic malaise in France.

A poll published Thursday showed that only 25 percent of those questioned said they trusted Hollande, who has become the most unpopular president in post-war France.

If confirmed, the relationship would perpetuate a long French tradition of philandering presidents.

Former president Jacques Chirac is believed to have had many extra-marital conquests, as did his predecessor Francois Mitterrand, who even had a daughter born to a mistress.

But much of this has been swept under the carpet as France's media is subject to strict laws on invasion of privacy.

Closer told AFP the magazine had been ordered by Gayet's lawyer to remove all reference to the alleged relationship from its website, hinting at privacy issues.

Nevertheless, experts said the magazine's revelations were unprecedented.

The French, however, are known for being tolerant of their leaders' infidelities.