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French Socialist Party’s power couple to split

The rumors were true: The famously dysfunctional couple at the head of France's main opposition Socialist Party is breaking up.
(FILES) Picture dated 29 May 2007 of Fre
Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande and former Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal, seen in May, have had four children together but were never married.Eric Feferberg / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The rumors were true: The famously dysfunctional couple at the head of France's main opposition Socialist Party is breaking up.

Segolene Royal had shown little delicacy in sweeping aside Francois Hollande — Socialist party boss and the father of her four children — to bid for the French presidency herself. She also kept him and the Socialists at arm's length for much of her failed campaign.

And on Sunday night, as results of parliamentary elections rolled in, they announced that their romantic relationship, intimately intertwined with their political one, was over.

As the Socialists try to regroup after the twin blows of losing last month's presidential and Sunday's legislative elections, Royal will now be free to seek her party's leadership without the baggage of domestic issues.

Hollande is expected to make way for a successor next year. The Socialists are bracing for a bruising leadership battle that could pit Royal against former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Royal and Hollande were France's closest equivalent to Bill and Hillary Clinton, a power couple who worked together to try to place at least one of them in the highest job in the land. They first met as students at France's school for the political elite. But unlike the Clintons, they fell short of the presidency.

Never married
They also never married in their three decades together — although Royal wistfully admitted in a recent book that she would have been game, and she suggested that Hollande allowed his friends to talk him out of the idea.

In the same way that Royal's idol, former President Francois Mitterrand, long hid his illness and illegitimate daughter from voters, Royal and Hollande seemingly kept their problems under wraps to try not to disrupt her presidential run.

"Like all couples, we have had difficulties. I chose to put these problems on hold during the campaign," she said in an interview broadcast Monday by France Inter radio.

Neither of them spelled out the reasons for the breakup, but Royal suggested in one interview that Hollande was seeing someone else, referring to "his love interest."

There have been persistent rumors about the couple, increasingly public strains and policy disagreements. One of the most telltale signs was when they were photographed shaking hands in March. In a country where the standard greeting is kisses on the cheek, and where couples openly canoodle in public, the formality of that snapshot raised eyebrows.

Hollande also said he would not live in the presidential Elysee Palace if Royal won the election.

Disarray, politically and personally
The separation opens a political can of worms for the Socialists as they plot out a new direction after Royal's May 6 presidential defeat. It all seems a fitting symbol of the party's current state of disarray.

The split also overshadowed the Socialists' surprisingly good showing in Sunday's election: While they lost, they were not clobbered as had been expected.

Daily Le Parisien made the separation its front-page cover story Monday, under the headline "The Breakup." The parliamentary result was relegated to a banner at the top.

The interest highlighted how media in France, following the lead of other countries with aggressive tabloids and gossip magazines, are increasingly delving into public figures' private lives — long an area that was seen as off-limits.

One of the big questions was how Royal and Hollande would keep their private woes separate from politics. Hollande says he is not ready to quit his job just yet, although he's never matched the telegenic Royal for popularity.

It's difficult to gauge whether the split will make the leadership contest less muddled or even messier.

Critics had seen uncomfortable echoes of nepotism in the prospect of Hollande handing off to Royal, in a sort of dynastic succession. With their split, it would be far harder to argue that Hollande is unfairly giving Royal a leg up.

"I proposed to Francois that he live his life and he accepted," Royal told France Inter. "Things will be much clearer now."