Allegations that French President Francois Hollande is having an affair with an actress come at a bad time as he prepares to showcase efforts to tackle the country’s economic and social woes.
Already unpopular in the opinion polls, Hollande, who has yet to win his bet to reverse the trend in unemployment, is now under attack in his private life.
The French president, 59, who officially lives with his partner Valerie Trierweiler, has not denied the relationship with 41-year-old actress Julie Gayet but reacted furiously to Friday’s publication of the allegation in Closer magazine.
He threatened legal action over what he called a violation of his right to privacy.
The timing of the alleged affair is particularly bad for the French president.
Hollande, whose popularity ratings have hit record lows in recent months, had been expected to use his bi-annual press conference on Tuesday to announce a new strategy aimed at lifting France out of its economic difficulties.
He was due to outline the “responsibility pact” he is offering a disgruntled business community whereby companies would benefit from lower labour taxes in exchange for job creation.
The number of France’s unemployed rose to 3.29 million in November, even though Hollande claimed in October he had met his electoral pledge to halt the rise in joblessness by the end of 2013.
Closer’s article, which describes a president travelling at night on the backseat of a scooter to see his lover, could spoil Hollande’s new year, newspapers warned.
Tuesday’s press conference was “expected to mark a political resurgence by confirming the social-democratic shift” the president hinted at in his New Year address, L’Est Republicain said in an editorial.
Hollande, who intended to have what he called a normal presidency, has since his election had to walk a fine line between his private and public life after his companion Trierweiler tweeted her support for the local political rival of Segolene Royal, Hollande’s ex partner and mother of their four children.
But he later told the people magazine Gala in October 2010 that Trierweiler was “the love of my life,” a woman the Americans call “the first girlfriend,” making official his relationship with the journalist.
Such scrutiny of the president’s private life was unthinkable several years ago, as the French media had shown almost complete discretion about the privacy of politicians.
Former president Jacques Chirac is believed to have had many extra-marital conquests, as did his predecessor Francois Mitterrand, who even had a daughter born to a mistress.
But much of this has been swept under the carpet as France’s media is subject to strict laws on invasion of privacy, which can be punished with a year’s jail and a fine of 45,000 euros ($61,000).
Closer’s allegations are “catastrophic in every possible way for Francois Hollande,” L’Alsace newspaper commented.