Why the French president needs Michelle Obama

Story highlights

  • David Frum: French president in a romantic pickle that makes him look a little ridiculous
  • Hollande has two girlfriends; which one he brings on U.S. visit is burning question
  • Frum: Hollande needs the respectability that posing with the Obamas would bring
  • Frum: Nations often don't know what role a "first spouse" plays, but public always curious

Michelle Obama is controversial enough in this country. Many commentators criticize the cost of her clothes and the glitz of her entertaining. Yet it may be that she has generated the most reaction across the Atlantic.

As you may have heard, French President Francois Hollande has entangled himself in a farcical emotional comedy. On January 10, a French magazine printed an article insinuating that Hollande had fallen in love with an actress, Julie Gayet. Hollande threatened to sue for invasion of privacy, but he did not deny the truth of the story.

Almost immediately after the magazine story appeared, Hollande's present partner -- a former television presenter named Valerie Trierweiler -- had checked herself into a hospital. Friends told the press that Trierweiler had swallowed "a pill too many."

David Frum

What has Michelle Obama to do with all this? The President of France is set to visit the United States on February 11. The grand question convulsing the French media is: Who will Hollande present to Michelle Obama as the first lady of France?

The British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, reports that Trierweiler "has told friends that she will forgive [Hollande] if she stays as first lady and the other woman goes." Trierweiler has supposedly set the Washington visit and the meeting with Michelle Obama as the crucial decision point. At a lengthy press conference on January 14, Hollande promised that the question, "Does France have a first lady, and if so, who?" would be resolved out before the Washington visit.

The French magazine Closer exposed President Francois Hollande's affair with actress Julie Gayet.

The French are unused to romantic dramas played out in public.

Until recently, the wife of a French president was deemed a private person, not a representative of the state. Mme Charles de Gaulle, Mme Georges Pompidou, Mme Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Mme Francois Mitterand and Mme Jacques Chirac would appear at formal state functions but otherwise remain secluded from public view. (Francois Mitterand, President from 1981 through 1995, insisted especially forcefully on privacy for his family for a reason the French public only learned after his death: He had two families and maintained both of the households at public expense.

    All that changed, first under Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, and now Hollande, elected in 2012. The twice-divorced Sarkozy married the glamorous Carla Bruni a year into his term of office. The next year, Sarkozy became the first French president to have a child in office.

    It was Sarkozy and Bruni who reinvented the role of the French first lady -- and Michelle Obama seems to have been a big part of the reason why.

    In 2008, the French media pulsed with excitement over Barack and Michelle Obama. Sarkozy, whose government had run into early trouble, was eager to borrow some of the Obamas' popularity. He sought to replace the highly formal head-of-state to head-of-state relationships of the past with a new, more tabloid-accessible, couple-to-couple relationship.

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    Thus, although Laura Bush and Bernadette Chirac were photographed together only on red carpets and around crowded lunch tables, Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni figured in dozens of seemingly warm and friendly one-on-one shots.

    Sarkozy's successor, Hollande, needed something quite different from Michelle Obama. Hollande had lived unmarried for 30 years with another senior figure in the French Socialist party, Segolene Royal. They had four children together.

    In 2007, the French Socialist Party chose Royal as its presidential candidate. After Royal's defeat, Hollande broke off with her, took up with Trierweiler and sought and won the presidency for himself.

    Unlike Sarkozy and Bruni, Hollande and Trierweiler never did get married. Today, with his approval rating battered down to 22% by France's miserable economic performance and his own vacillating leadership style, Hollande's public image desperately needs some kind of reinforcement.

    The magazine that revealed Hollande's affair with Gayet also posted photographs of the 59-year-old Hollande popping on a helmet to ride a motor scooter to his mistress' home. Never photogenic, he looked especially absurd. Parodies ensued, including a video game in which you are Hollande on his scooter and must dodge paparazzi and his current partner to get to his new girlfriend.

    Standing at the White House alongside the Obamas with a first lady of France -- any first lady -- might inject Hollande with a supplemental dose of respectability and dignity. That would be the plan, anyway.

    Around the world, elected leaders struggle with the question: What to do with the spouse of the head of government? Voters are inescapably curious about and interested in that person, whether she is the first lady of a superpower or a small Baltic republic.

    The American solution is to carve out a place for the spouse of the president, with a staff and public duties. In turn, that person is expected to submit to certain demands and at least outwardly conform to more traditional norms of behavior. It's an imperfect solution. But it's a better solution than what we see in Congress and statehouses, where it has become increasingly common for one spouse to hold high office while the other spouse makes a fortune as a lobbyist -- and where voters are asked to believe that the rising wealth of the private-sector spouse has nothing whatsoever to do with the political clout of the spouse on the public payroll.

    On Saturday night, Michelle Obama celebrated her 50th birthday at a White House dance party. The Obamas' entertaining has often provoked criticism. Criticism goes with the first lady role.

    Entertain too much, dress too well, and you are Marie Antoinette. Just ask Nancy Reagan. Entertain too little, dress too plainly, and you will be mocked as dowdy and boring -- think Bess Truman. Look too interested in public affairs, and people will ask "Who elected you?" See Clinton, Hillary. Ignore public affairs, and Americans will grumble that you are AWOL from your duties. See Bush, Laura.

    Yet as impossible as it is to fill the role of first lady perfectly, it is that much more impossible to pretend that the consort of the head of state is just a private person living in a public building. The wife (someday, husband; someday after that, same-sex partner) of the head of state is inescapably a public person, too, with public influence and a public function. That function, when well-performed, deserves respect from across the political spectrum.

    Happy birthday, Michelle Obama. You earned your party.

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