Paris — François Hollande, the president of France, and Ségolène Royal, a senior cabinet minister who once ran for that post herself, have an exceptionally complicated relationship.
The two lived together for 25 years, raising four children over that time. Then they broke up in 2007 over an infidelity that Ms. Royal made public a month after she had lost that year’s election for president.
Ms. Royal nonetheless campaigned for Mr. Hollande, 60, when he ran successfully for the presidency in 2012, even though the other woman in that romantic triangle, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler, was his official live-in companion.
Ms. Royal, 61, also kept her sang-froid when Ms. Trierweiler reportedly demanded that the longtime political and personal partner of Mr. Hollande be kept out of his government. As Ms. Trierweiler later wrote in her memoir, “Ségolène Royal’s presence in the political arena made things even more complicated for François and me.”
But now Ms. Royal is back in the corridors of power. During a cabinet reshuffle in April 2014, she was named minister for ecology, sustainable development and energy, the third in cabinet rank after prime minister and foreign minister. And, unofficially, she fills other job descriptions.
The position of vice president does not exist in France; neither does a role comparable that of the first lady of the United States. But armed with ambition, raw political intuition and large doses of charm, Ms. Royal seems to have slipped into both roles.
“She’s the imaginary vice president and the imaginary first lady,” said Gérard Miller, a psychoanalyst and filmmaker whose documentary on Ms. Royal was shown on France 3 television recently. “Sometimes the imaginary can become real. She’s perfect in the two roles, because it doesn’t cost the French an extra centime.”
Increasingly, she has been seen as his stand-in for some important state occasions and his companion for others.Image From left, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande with Spain's King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia.CreditPhilippe Wojazer/Reuters
When Pope Francis touched down on French soil for the first time in his papacy with a visit to the European Parliament in Strasbourg last November, Ms. Royal was the senior French official there to greet him. After the deadly attacks against a satirical newspaper and a kosher supermarket last January, she traveled to Israel to represent France at the memorial services.
She accompanied Mr. Hollande on an official trip to Cuba and the Caribbean in May. When the king and queen of Spain came to Paris for a state visit in June, she was next to Mr. Hollande to greet them on the steps of the Élysée Palace, standing where a first lady might.
And Ms. Trierweiler?
She has now exited from both the Élysée and Mr. Hollande’s life, replaced by the actress Julie Gayet.
Ms. Gayet, the mother of two and 18 years the president’s junior, has played film roles as varied as hairdresser, swindler, Foreign Ministry bureaucrat and junkie. The revelation that they were now a couple came via published photographs of the president in a motorcycle helmet with a dark visor hiding his face as he was sneaking away to meet her near the Élysée Palace. (His sensible black-tie shoes gave him away.)
The departure of Ms. Trierweiler and the arrival of Ms. Gayet seems to have given Ms. Royal the opening she needed to get back into Mr. Hollande’s life. (Professionally, at least.) While Ms. Trierweiler was openly hostile to her, Ms. Gayet seems to have no such animosity — sort of like Victor Hugo’s wife, Adèle, who hated his first official mistress, Juliette Drouet, because she saw it as betrayal, but embraced Léonie d’Aunet, the second one, and even used her against the first. (She invited Léonie to their Paris home and sent a bundle of love letters Hugo wrote to Léonie to Juliette.)
Ms. Royal cites her life in politics and her presidential candidacy as evidence of her international standing, and takes on subjects far from her dossier. At a small dinner at the residence of Ambassador Gérard Araud in Washington in May, the former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright peppered her with questions about President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine and the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
While other ministers may have punted and asked the ambassador to take over, Ms. Royal did not hesitate to give lengthy, and diplomatically vague, responses.
She has so dramatically expanded her authority that the weekly magazine L’Obs featured her, smiling and with arms crossed, on a cover in May with the title “La Vice-Presidente.”Image Valérie Trierweiler, the third side of the romantic triangle that included Mr. Hollande and Ms. Royal.CreditThierry Chesnot/Getty Images
Asked during an interview in her office for her reaction, she said: “I am not going to say that it displeased me, because that would be absurd. I am not going to show false modesty.”
Just don’t call her the de facto first lady. “No, I’m not the first lady!” she said. “I’m not the queen of France, either, even if my name is Royal.”
Even Ms. Trierweiler, 50, has acknowledged the unbreakable Hollande-Royal bond. “They share an unbridled taste for politics,” she said in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien. “Power is their reason for living, their mutual obsession.”
Meanwhile, neither Mr. Hollande nor Ms. Gayet has confirmed the nature of their relationship. Tabloid magazines have published photos of the couple taken surreptitiously — as they sat in on a private terrace of the Élysée, and as they walked on the grounds of La Lanterne, the presidential retreat outside Paris.
Asked about the photos in an interview on Canal+ television, Mr. Hollande replied, “For me, they don’t exist.”
Shortly after the L’Obs cover on Ms. Royal, Paris Match proclaimed Ms. Gayet’s ascendancy, with the headline “Julie Gayet in the Spotlight: How She is Gradually Assuming Her New Role.”
The cover article quoted unnamed sources claiming that she and the president were seen having a drink at a certain Paris bistro, that Mr. Hollande himself picked her up from a dinner party and that they have entertained at La Lanterne. It described her “bursting” into the life of Mr. Hollande and her “installation” in the Élysée as normal.
“In a way France is still a monarchy, where everyone knows everything and no one says anything,” said Gilles Martin-Chauffier, editor in chief of Paris Match, in an interview. “What’s hard to explain is why the president is hiding what all France knows.”Image Julie Gayet, Mr. Hollande's current companion.CreditKristy Sparow/Getty Images
On the day the issue of Paris Match hit the newsstands, Ms. Gayet appeared publicly at an official ceremony attended by Mr. Hollande marking the 75th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s June 18, 1940, radio address from London calling on the French to resist the Nazi occupation.
Ms. Gayet, dressed in a sober black dress, pushed the wheelchair of her grandfather, Alain Gayet, a French resistance fighter. French officials seemed surprised by her presence. Mr. Hollande and Mr. Gayet kept far enough away from each other so that no photographer caught them in the same frame.
Ms. Gayet has refused all requests for interviews, while Ms. Royal brushes off as irrelevant all questions about her personal life.
“All the personal setbacks, they matter nothing to me,” Ms. Royal said. “What’s important is my political identity, not my identity as a woman.”
She does not see herself as a French Hillary Clinton, who survived the infidelity of her president spouse to emerge as a political figure in her own right. “I don’t feel that, I don’t feel that,” she said. “Hillary came into politics because her husband was in politics. Not I. I had my own political identity from the beginning. I feel closer to Al Gore, in his combat to save the planet.”
Her political reconciliation with Mr. Hollande has helped repair his ties with their children, who tended to blame Ms. Trierweiler for the breakup with their mother. (It could not have helped relations that after her dismissal by Mr. Hollande, Ms. Trierweiler also wrote a tell-all, “Thank You for This Moment,” in which she disclosed that her affair with Mr. Hollande began in 2005, two years before the breakup.)
Ms. Royal is now so close to him that she often bypasses the cabinet and takes her petitions directly to him. She is so confident of her views that she sometimes shoots from the hip, a habit that rankles other officials.
The France 3 documentary on Ms. Royal quoted various analysts on whether she would run again for president. Alain Duhamel, a leading political commentator, said, “I don’t imagine at all a new presidential candidacy, but as I was wrong once, perhaps I’ll be wrong a second time.”
Asked in the interview whether she would run again, she answered with a terse “no.”
“Because this is not at all my intention,” she said. “Now maybe you won’t write an article.”
She paused and then laughed. “We’ll see,” she said. “If your article is excellent, maybe I’ll change my mind.”