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A tweet by France's first lady in support of an election rival of President Francois Hollande's ex-partner has triggered a politically damaging media firestorm just days from a decisive round of parliamentary elections.
Valerie Trierweiler, companion of French President Francois Hollande, talks to pupils in a classroom during her visit at the French School in Chicago, May 21, 2012., Photo: Reuters
The tweet made public a private rivalry between Hollande's partner Valerie Trierweiler and his former companion, Segolene Royal, and threatened to wreck his promise of a more sober presidency after soap opera saga of his predecessor's love life.
In her post on the messaging network, Trierweiler told Olivier Falorni - a candidate for the La Rochelle constituency in western France that Royal is contesting - to "Take heart," praising him for his dedication.
Adding to the spice, Royal, who lost a 2007 presidential contest to Sarkozy, has the support of her Socialist party and its one-time boss - Hollande.
Hollande is on track to win a majority for his Socialist bloc in Sunday's runoff, after a victory in last week's first round, but he needs to keep all his supporters on board and avoid the internecine divisions which have plagued the Socialists in the past.
"The First Gaffe of France," left-leaning newspaper Liberation declared over a full front page photo of Trierweiler. It devoted five pages to the affair while the popular daily Le Parisien published photos of the two women under the headline, "The secret history of a rivalry."
The highbrow Le Monde daily said in an editorial the Twitter affair echoed "the worst hours" of the very public domestic dramas between former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his ex-wife Cecilia.
The main victim in the Twitter scandal, it wrote, "is the image of a consistent president, serene and master of his message."
During his campaign, Hollande vowed do away with the much-criticized intermingling of private and public spheres that alienated many voters from Sarkozy, whether his high-profile wooing of former supermodel Carla Bruni or splashy vacations taken with the rich and powerful while president.
Radio and newspaper commentators said the inappropriate tweet was a sign that Trierweiler's outspokenness and unwillingness to play the part of a traditional first lady was starting to become problematic for Hollande, who has impressed most observers with an adept start to his presidency.
"In five years will we remember this tweet as the beginning of the end of the normal presidency?" asked Liberation in an analysis.
The tweet by Trierweiler - a Paris Match journalist who intends to carry on working despite Hollande's election - was the latest distraction by the first lady as the Socialists try to rally supporters to ensure a clear parliamentary majority after Sunday's runoff contests.
Largely in the shadows during Hollande's campaign, Trierweiler has proved somewhat outspoken since his victory. Some French media dubbed her "The Iron Lady" for throwing an unwelcome politician out of Hollande's victory bash, and polls indicate that the public views her as distant.
The satirical political puppet show "Les Guignols de l'Info" went to town on what it painted as a "menage a trois," keeping up its portrayal of Trierweiler as a dominating harpie who keeps a hapless Hollande under her thumb.
Royal has refused to comment on the tweet and government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem played down the brouhaha, saying on Wednesday that Trierweiler was merely "expressing her personal opinion."
Conservatives, anxious to deprive Hollande of a majority in the lower house National Assembly which he could use to push through tax hikes on the rich and liberal social policies, seized on the controversy.
Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, spokeswoman for Sarkozy during his failed re-election bid, said that mixing politics and the personal "is never a good thing."
"We don't know if Valerie Trierweiler is expressing herself as the companion of the president, as a Socialist activist, or as an engaged journalist," Kosciusko-Morizet told BFM-TV.
"If tomorrow we have the same confusion over an important subject for France, over the image of France in the world, what will happen?"
Henri Guaino, another close aide to the former president, said the tweeting episode undermined Hollande's claim to be a "normal" president.
"There are constraints the president has to assume and his companion too. It's impossible to keep his private life completely private," Guaino told Radio Classique.
Trierweiler appeared to foreshadow the tweeting scandal in an interview with Today's Woman magazine published on April 28.
"Francois completely trusts me. Except with my tweets," she was quoted as saying.
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