PARIS – French President Francois Hollande conceded Tuesday that he is going through “painful moments” with his companion, who was hospitalized after a magazine reported that he is secretly having an affair with a movie actress.
But the Socialist Hollande, who has some of the lowest approval ratings of a French leader, sidestepped specifics about his personal life and tried to devote his annual presidential news conference to his plan for reviving France’s struggling economy.
Hollande’s partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been hospitalized since Friday, when the tabloid-style magazine Closer published photos it said proved Hollande’s liaison with actress Julie Gayet around the corner from the presidential Elizee Palace.
Hollande said Trierweiler “is resting” but insisted that the packed news conference was not the place to discuss the issue.
He did not deny or confirm the Closer report, but his announcement Tuesday of economic measures meant to encourage hiring was overshadowed by the scandal.
The first reporter to speak asked Hollande who is France’s first lady.
The president brushed aside the question in a country where the private lives of leaders have long been considered private. But he suggested that his relationship with Trierweiler was in a crisis stage.
“Everyone in his or her personal life can go through ordeals — that’s the case with us,” he said. “They are painful moments. But I have a principle. It’s that private affairs should be handled privately, respecting the intimacy of all. This is neither the place nor the moment to do so.”
Hollande said he would respond to the question before his Feb. 11 state visit to Washington, a trip that would normally include Trierweiler.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney hedged awkwardly when asked if there were any changes to plans for the visit by Hollande and his partner.
“The president looks forward to seeing President Hollande. . . . On issues of the delegation that the French come with, I would refer you to the French government,” Carney said.
The Closer report showed photos of a man it identified as Hollande. He was wearing a motorcycle helmet and being ferried on the back of a small scooter to an alleged tryst with Gayet.
Asked whether his security was compromised, Hollande said: “My security is assured everywhere, and at any moment. When I travel officially . . . and when I travel on a private basis, I have protection that is less suffocating. But I am protected everywhere.”
After the news conference, Hollande visited with several journalists in a private Elizee office, appearing relaxed and saying he was satisfied with the news conference. He said he was not surprised about the questions about his private life, but refused further comment on it.
Trierweiler is the first person not married to the president to hold the post of first lady, which is not a formal function in France.
Hollande has four children with another leading Socialist politician, Segolene Royal. He left Royal for Trierweiler, whom he has lived with since 2007.
France has a rich tradition of dalliances among leaders, be they kings — whose courtesans made infidelity a royal ritual — or presidents.
But the concept of privacy, considered sacred, was chipped away under Nicolas Sarkozy, Hollande’s swaggering, brash predecessor and political rival. Sarkozy divorced while in office, then married model and songstress Carla Bruni.
The French media pounced on the report of Hollande’s infidelity to Trierweiler. The cover of the weekly newsmagazine L’Express, bearing a picture of Hollande, read, “The Discredit.”
Of course, in France, leaders “have the right to fall in love,” the magazine’s executive editor, Christophe Barbier, said on iTele TV station. But “he should have clarified his personal situation” rather than leaving it in the hands of Closer.
In contrast, Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, Hollande’s mentor, kept his love child, daughter Mazarine, secret for years.
Asked about the Closer report Tuesday, Hollande said his “indignation is total” and called it a “violation that touches a personal liberty.” He left open the possibility of suing the magazine.
The French president tried to lift the debate, speaking in elegant terms of “France’s destiny” and laying out economic measures to return dynamism to France so that it counts fully in Europe and the world.
Hollande notably announced measures meant to loosen up France’s labor market and cut into the 11 percent unemployment rate. He promised to cut €50 billion ($68 billion) in public spending over the years 2015-2017 and laid out a broad economic strategy that largely involved going “faster, farther” with modest reforms his government has already taken.
But the report of a presidential affair even reached the floor of parliament earlier Tuesday. A leading legislator from the opposition conservative UMP party accused the president of taking unreasonable risks with his security.
“The president is not a normal citizen during his term. He is the chief of our armies. He is the keystone of our institutions. His protection should not suffer from any amateurism,” Christian Jacob said in the National Assembly. “The president should be aware of the level of responsibility that he exercises, be aware that his role is greater than his person, and be aware that he incarnates the image of France in the eyes of the world.”
Some wondered whether the revelations would lead to doing away with the informal role of first lady.
Francois Rebsamen, a Socialist lawmaker who counts himself among Hollande’s friends, said the revelations showed the entire idea of a first lady was obsolete.
“Francois Hollande himself said it at one point: You elect a person. And then this person can live alone, can be single, can live with another man or a woman. It’s no one’s business and it doesn’t come into play,” he told RTL radio on Tuesday.