Protocol Problem: France's New First Lady Is Not Married to the President

The first unmarried couple is set to occupy the Elysee Palace.

May 16, 2012 — -- Valerie Trierweiler, France's new first lady, has covered French politics as a journalist for more than 20 years. So she likely anticipated how being the first unmarried French first lady to occupy the Elysee Palace -- and one who plans to continue to work -- might mean new uncharted territory, and how the press might respond.

What the twice married and twice divorced mother of three likely didn't expect, however, was just how much a protocol conundrum her relationship with the newly minted French president, Francois Hollande, would create.

Concerns about just how she will travel to places such as the Vatican or Saudi Arabia – a conservative society where unmarried couples living together isn't accepted – have already begun to arise at the French foreign ministry, according to several reports. And just how she will be addressed at official palace functions is also presenting some unique yet thorny issues.

Would "Madame Valerie Trierweiler, companion of the president" or "Madame Valerie Trierweiler-Hollande, the president's spouse" be appropriate?

Trierweiler said she didn't expect her unmarried status to pose problems, telling an interviewer recently that she's "not sure it will come up all that much."

"Frankly, it really is not an aspect that bothers me," she told the daily Le Figaro. "This question of marriage is above all a part of our private life.

Not everyone in France agrees.

"It is going to be very complicated," French journalist and writer Philippe Labro told the BBC. Labro, a longtime colleague of Trierweiler's, gave her a job as political interviewer on the TV channel Direct8. "She will have to balance quite a lot," he said.

A French foreign ministry official quoted in Canada's National Post said most countries to which a French president travels are happy to accommodate his wishes and in the 21st century, being unmarried does not pose a major problem.

"If we tell them 'treat this person as the president's wife,' then they will do so," said the official, who'd asked not be named.

Trierweiler and Hollande have been together since 2005, when Hollande's relationship with fellow Socialist Segolene Royal, who ran for president but lost to Nicolas Sarkozy, publicly ended. The couple is currently living in an apartment in Paris's 15th arrondissement but is expected to move into the Elysee Palace for security reasons. They have apparently ruled out getting married purely for diplomatic reasons, according to several French media reports.

From Modest Means to the Elysee Palace

Trierweiler was born to modest means in a housing project in Angers, in western France. Her father lost his leg at the age of 12 while playing with an unexploded World War II shell in 1944. She grew up one of six brothers and sisters.

She eventually moved to Paris to study political science at the Sorbonne, ultimately rising to become a top reporter at Paris Match, a well-known French weekly.

She met Francois Hollande in the late 1990s, and a few years later their friendship deepened while he was a state politician and she covered politics inside the corridors of the National Assembly.

"We both loved politics, and we both loved to have a laugh," she told a French newspaper recently. Trierweiler says the extraordinary changes in her life seem unreal.

"It's a bit like I am the subject of one of my own dispatches," she said recently. "You know that film in which a person in the audience enters the screen and becomes part of the film. It's like that."

Despite the fairy tale veneer, Trierweiler is no stranger to the media - or to controversy.

Known widely as a feisty magazine journalist, she earned the nickname "Rottweiler" after slapping a colleague at Paris Match, for saying something she thought was sexist, the U.K.'s Daily Mail reported.

And after her own magazine put her on the cover under the headline "Francois Hollande's charming asset," she reportedly tweeted in French: "Bravo Paris Match for its sexism - my thoughts go out to all angry women."

"She is someone who has always worked, who's come from nowhere, who's done everything for herself, " said her longtime colleague Labro. "It's going to be very hard to keep doing that and be first lady."