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Originally published January 20, 2014 at 10:52 AM | Page modified January 20, 2014 at 1:52 PM

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Hollande: French first lady on the mend, resting

French President Francois Hollande is traveling abroad, hoping to concentrate on state business. It's his alleged monkey business that's on many minds instead.


Associated Press

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THE HAGUE, Netherlands —

French President Francois Hollande is traveling abroad, hoping to concentrate on state business. It's his alleged monkey business that's on many minds instead.

The French leader is in the international spotlight after a gossip magazine reported that he's having an affair with an actress and his first lady spent a week in the hospital.

The attention to his sex life threatens to overshadow Hollande's efforts to wield influence on trade, Syria and peacekeeping in Africa.

He's off on five foreign trips in the next few weeks, including to tabloid-friendly Britain and culminating in a protocol-heavy state visit to the United States, where late-night comedy TV has already pilloried him.

The first public question he faced on his first international trip since the scandal broke Monday was about his partner, 48-year-old journalist Valerie Trierweiler. They have lived together since 2007, but have never married.

In The Hague, Netherlands, a French TV reporter asked whether Trierweiler is still officially the first lady.

For the second time in a week, he dodged the question. "Valerie Trierweiler is doing better, and is resting at the Lanterne," a presidential residence in the formal royal haunt of Versailles, Hollande said, refusing to elaborate.

Alongside him was Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is not married and has generally ducked questions about his love life.

Trierweiler left a hospital on Saturday after a week suffering from what aides called severe shock, prompted when gossip magazine Closer published images of what it says is Hollande sneaking out to see actress Julie Gayet. Hollande has not denied the allegation.

Trierweiler hadn't been expected to join Hollande in The Hague or on any other upcoming trips except the U.S. state visit Feb. 11, a glitzy event where her absence would likely stand out.

On Saturday, De Telegraaf, the Netherlands' largest circulation newspaper, published a story attempting to explain how Hollande with his "receding hairline and glasses" could be so appealing to several accomplished, desirable women. Its suggestion that power acts as an aphrodisiac -- especially among simians-- was underlined with a caricature of a pot-bellied, grinning Hollande in a gorilla suit.

After the laid-back Netherlands, Hollande heads to the Vatican. Roman Catholic teaching doesn't allow divorce or sex outside of marriage for its flock. But Pope Francis has been determined to reshape the image of the Church from a stern institution into a welcoming one, and isn't likely to publicly address Hollande's alleged peccadilloes.

Next week, Hollande leaves on an official visit to Turkey -- the first in 22 years by a French president -- to meet with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's Islamic-based, conservative government scorns sex outside of marriage and recently spoke of banning mixed-gender student residences.

Turkey's independent press has urged Trierweiler to leave the French presidential palace, and Vatan newspaper referred to Hollande as a "motorized womanizer" -- a reference to his alleged ride to a tryst on the back of a motor scooter.

But in the United States, where first ladies often capture the imagination and Michelle Obama's recent 50th birthday was international news, the fallout might be the biggest.

"This will be a big issue and a big distraction," said Robert Watson, a professor of American studies at Florida-based Lynn University and author of many books about the U.S. relationship with its presidents and their wives.

"Here in the United States we fixate on sex scandals and prominent people ... As he tries to get this behind him it'll stay in the news," he said. "Already the mistress is everywhere."

Hollande is clearly concerned about the image France projects in the world. At a speech to foreign ambassadors in Paris on Friday, he underlined how France's mission was to be "a bridge between civilizations, societies and cultures -- to speak to all."

The affair has overshadowed his Socialist-led government's policies. But is any publicity good publicity?

No, says French political analyst Dominique Moisi.

"People are asking themselves whether he's going to travel alone or with someone" -- instead of his negotiating points, he said. "So in a way, the person he travels with has stolen the show."

"The French feel, 'well, this is his private life,'" he said. "But his private life is damaging the image of France abroad, because the president of the republic of France does not look very dignified. So there is a link between the two."

___

Keaten reported from Paris. Sylvie Corbet and Lori Hinnant in Paris, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Frances D'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.



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