It’s not the last word on a First Lady

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On one side we have a ‘Kejriwalisation' of society in which the common man is king and can do whatever he wants. On the other, is the ‘People-isation' of the world where only the rich and beautiful attract attention

The Chinese are organised people, particularly, the Communist Party of China. For example, if it wants to transfer a senior cadre to a less powerful position, either the person is kicked up to some grand-sounding position where he will hibernate or the Party organises a foreign jaunt with stays in five-star hotels and ‘important’ meetings with foreign dignitaries. It is a sort of ‘golden handshake’.

Has the French President learnt from the Chinese? Probably not; he has too many problems to think about, with the stagnating economy and the increasing joblessness in France. However, the fact remains that the visit of the former French First Lady is reminiscent of the ‘golden jaunt’.

In the middle of the night, Ms Valérie Trierweiler emerged from an Air France flight and disembarked at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, where she was quickly whisked away in a waiting limousine. On her way to the car, she was swamped by photographers.

British People magazine wrote about a “Princess Diana-style charity trip”, though she is neither a princess nor a First Lady anymore.  Her webpage has been removed from the official Elysee Palace website, her official Twitter account is inaccessible, and her office at the Elysee is being been shut down. Her passage to India, nevertheless, raises serious issues.

First, does France need a First Lady? It is for the French public to answer this question. Ms Bernadette Chirac, wife of former President Jacques Chirac, during a recent Europe I radio programme found it “ridiculous” that the wife (or partner) of the French head of state should be considered the First Lady. In the past, French Presidents’ wives (not to speak of live-in companions) never held this exalted status, although they regularly accompanied the President on his local and foreign trips.

Let’s not forget that the French Revolution promulgated The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good.”

Well, that was long ago, before Kejriwal era; but the guiding principles of the French Revolution and the triple mantra of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ were quite sound (that’s why they are engraved in the Constitution of India).

True, the days of Yvonne Aunty, as the wife of Charles de Gaulle was affectionately known, are gone; we now live in the era of breaking-news and tweeting. In the West, large sections of the media only survive on spicy information forcing the rulers to adapt their image.

The problem of Madame Trierweiler is that she has been the most unpopular resident of the Elysee Palace. Her famous tweet supporting a Socialist candidate battling against François Hollande’s former partner Ségolene Royal made her lose the respect of Mr Hollande’s four children (with Ms Royal) as well as of the French public, not accustomed to this type of nasty outburst even during the bling-bling Sarkozy days.

It is not that the majority of the French approve of their President’s scooter escapades to meet Julie Gayet, an actress who has been rumoured to be his partner for a couple of years (the First Lady was undoubtedly in the know). The details of the story delighted the British Press, (French bashing is an oft-indulged sport on the northern side of the Channel) and l’Affaire Gayet was one of the rare occasions when personal stories splashed on the front pages of even serious French newspapers. French politicians’ private life is not usually made public (President Francois Mitterrand could have a decades-long affair and even an ‘illegitimate’ daughter without anybody bothering).

Ms Trierweiler’s jaunt brings forward a serious question about the image of India, a country not doing enough to end poverty. The former French President’s companion came to India for a charitable purpose, to promote an aid group Action Against Hunger. She was seen cuddling and kissing children in a paediatric ward, thus projecting a ‘poor’ India where children are starving.

My questions are: Does India need her children to be saved from hunger and poverty by foreign NGOs? Does India not have enough resources to look after her own children? How can a ‘mediatised’ first class trip to Mumbai, with a stay in a five star hotel, help solve the issue of hunger or poverty?

It clearly cannot, though it will certainly bring some publicity to the organisers. The real issues are: If only 50 per cent of the grants allotted under different Government schemes would reach their target, poverty would certainly disappear. What about Indian funds hidden in Swiss coffers? If repatriated, it would make a huge difference.

If Mrs Trierweiler is keen to experience misery, she should visit the banlieux (the suburbs) of Paris or other large French towns. She will meet true poverty there; she should remember that nobody in France has the means to book Versailles Palace for a wedding, like a rich Indian did a few years ago.

To make it worse, the event was organised by another French actress Charlotte Valandrey involved in promoting organ donations and transplants. To mix poverty and organ donation in India is indeed in bad taste, especially when sponsors include the Champagne brand Moët & Chandon.

We are living in a strange world. On one side we have a ‘Kejriwalisation’ of society in which the common man is king and can do whatever he feels is right. On the other hand is the ‘People-isation’ of the world where only the rich and the beautiful attract the attention of the media. Where to grasp for fresh air in between?

It is of course wrong for the French Presidency to mix private and state affairs, but moralists have never solved any problems. In India too, there is a tendency to make fun of Mr Hollande’s sentimental misadventures. But one usually forgets that Jawaharlal Nehru’s relation with Edwina Mountbatten cost India a large chunk of Jammu & Kashmir State. But that is a secret!

By the way, after her stay in the hospital (following the revelations of Mr Hollande’s affair), the former First Lady spent a few days at the presidential retreat in Versailles. Before the Revolution, the place used to be a hunting lodge, known as La Lanterne. Unfortunately, it has a strong Revolutionary connotation, the sans-culottes would sing les aristocrates à la lanterne! (“the aristocrats to the lamp lost” or “Hang ‘em high”). Mr Hollande should think of changing the name of the retreat; the days of hanging are no more.

In the meantime in China, Mr Xu Zhiyong, the activist of the New Citizens Movement has been sentenced to four years behind bars for public order offences. He was found guilty of gathering a crowd to disturb public order; he had wanted ‘social justice’ and advocated transparency. This is not well seen in today’s China.

Indeed, we are living in a strange world.

(The accompanying visual is of Valérie Trierweiler with a child on her lap at the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action centre, during her visit to a Mumbai slum on January 28. AP photo by Rajanish Kakade)

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