Francois Hollande is far from a cookie-cutter politician. Never married, the newly inaugurated president of France shared a 30-year partnership with fellow Socialist politician Segolene Royal. The couple had four children, but separated after Royal’s failed 2007 presidential campaign.
Now Hollande is partners with Valerie Trierweiler, a French journalist who’s twice divorced and the mother of three children, the first French first lady not to be married to the president. She is working to redefine the role of France’s First Lady, a position historically defined by privacy and quiet.
While the United States has had its share of intriguing, if not quirky, presidents, looking at the complicated marital and familial histories of Hollande and Trierweiler from an American perspective highlights the importance of image in the American presidential election.
The fact of the matter is that in the United States, more than any other country, presidential candidates are evaluated based their romantic lives.
Historically, men in their marriages do the best out in presidential elections. Out of 44 of the United States presidents, only two unmarried men were elected: James Buchanan in 1857 and Grover Cleveland in 1892, who would be wed in the White House in 1896. Buchanan on the other hand broke off an engagement to the wealthy daughter of a Philadelphia judge in 1819 and many historians hypothesize that Buchanan was gay, although he never openly admitted it.
Six presidents had more than one wife in their lives, but only one of those presidents, Ronald Reagan, saw a marriage end in divorce. Even so, Reagan was already married to Nancy Reagan (nee Davis) for 28 years before being elected in 1980.
This standard also has several modern manifestations. While John Edwards had already lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Barack Obama in 2008, allegations of Edward’s extramarital affair with Riele Hunter derailed his political career, let alone his vice presidential candidacy. And in the 2012 Republican primary, Newt Gingrich’s martial indiscretions and misconduct handicapped his presidential campaign in an election season defined in part by Republican emphasis on good, often Christian, values.
While Hollande’s election seems like the antithesis on anything that would happen stateside, Trierweiler’s role in her partner’s victory draws parallels to the role of the American first lady.
Trierweiler was the driving force behind Hollande’s campaign in almost every way, from actually convincing him to run for president to coaxing him to lose weight and update his wardrobe to make himself look more presidential. She is also drawing comparisons to Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, which shows that while a prototypically American image consciousness is not the defining factor in a French presidential campaign, American influences can be found in Hollande's victory.
It’s hard to predict if Hollande’s election will lessen the importance of marital status in American presidential campaigns, but if France’s political paradigm shows semblances of American influence, who’s to say that a more relaxed standard won’t find its way into the American conscious?