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France's 'Monsieur Normal' takes office ... unmarried

Updated at 09:55 a.m. ET Tuesday: Just as we were getting used to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Napoleonic style, rather large ears and twitchy manner, and his knock-out French-Italian wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s catwalk charm, breathless voice and bling, it’s out with the old and in with the new.

On Tuesday, Francois Hollande, so bland a politician that he turned “Monsieur Normal” into a cool campaign moniker, was inaugurated as the ninth president since the larger-than-life Charles de Gaulle created the Fifth Republic in 1958. But He is the very first to assume France’s most powerful job… unmarried. 

And unheard of. Even the Musketeer-like Sarkozy rushed to divorce his long-time spouse, Cecilia, and marry the celebrity Bruni just to do the honorable thing. But Hollande – a self-proclaimed social Democrat – will enter the Elysee Palace, not with a spouse at his side, but with a twice-divorced “partner”: Valerie Trierweiler, an elegant but take-no-prisoners reporter who, at 47, is 10 years younger than Hollande. They’ve been a couple since Hollande left his ex-PARTNER of some 30 years, Segolene Royale -- the French Socialist politician, former presidential candidate, and mother of his four grown children. (She, like Hollande, has never married.)  

Trierweiler, the next first lady -- or ‘Premiere Dame’ -- brings her own baggage into this unusual presidential relationship. Having worked all of her adult life to support her three boys, she says she has no intention of  “retiring” as first lady – a ceremonial, non-job in France with no bureau, staff or real budget – or of living off the state. 

“I think she wants to remain herself,” said French author and political analyst Nicole Bacharan. ‘Which is already a challenge as a first lady. She wants to remain true to the kind of mother she is and professional woman she is.’’ 

A challenge, that will be. When asked how the unmarried couple could pay state visits, for instance, to conservative Arab countries or the pope, Trierweiler dismissed the need for such travel and warned that she and Hollande would never marry under pressure “of protocol.” Now, such an attitude will no doubt shock some of the more straight-laced among us. But Bacharan believes the American public will by and large take to this smart, independent, working French mom with the chic neck scarves. She’s got what it takes to make her own mark, but in a very un-Bruni way. ‘’Trierweiler doesn’t seek celebrity. She doesn’t seek the limelight. She has fallen in love with this man who happens to be the president of France, but she wants to play a low, discreet role,” said Bacharan. 

 In this sense she should hit it off with the U.S. first lady, Michelle Obama, when the two are expected to meet at Camp David next week -- the French first couple’s first foreign visit. Both women are educated, articulate and independent, middle-class mothers who influence their "significant others" mostly from the sidelines, and in private. Trierweiler, a media professional for more than 20 years, has already improved Hollande’s image -- his slimmer looks, modern glasses and better-fitting suits all have her stamp of approval. "I think she’s very smart, very protective," said Chris Dickey, Newsweek’s Paris correspondent. "She not only asserts her influence -- she protects her influence of her partner.’’ 

Hollande’s comfortable defeat of the conservative Sarkozy -- as anticipated as it was -- has shaken Europe’s status quo. And his contentious tax-and-spend approach to growth and deficit reduction has triggered a hot debate on both sides of the pond. But it’s unclear how much -- if at all -- Trierweiler’s ideas have influenced Hollande’s leftist politics, or his economics. Refreshingly, their bond seems -- above all else -- to be emotional. "I didn’t choose to have a public life," she’s told a French magazine. "I chose Francois. But I will adapt." And who would’ve guessed that, behind Hollande’s gravely voice and charmless demeanor, there breathes ... a romantic? "It’s very rare to succeed professionally AND meet the woman of your life," Hollande confided to a French newspaper. "That chance is fleeting, but I chose to seize it!" 

In fact, "Mr. and Ms. Normal" are anything but, even by French standards: an unmarried presidential couple with seven children, two ex-husbands and an ex-partner who happens to be an arch- rival, between them. But, let’s cut the new stars of the global political stage some slack. They are, after all, French -- for whom "doing it your way" is the 11th commandment. And when it comes to the French presidency --  a depository of dead war heroes, resistance leaders and monster egos -- an unassuming bureaucrat and his discreet -- if feisty -- partner, both with complicated personal lives, may fool us all and actually bring the "normalcy" that most French voters wanted.  Now wouldn’t THAT be abnormal?


Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who has covered France since the 1970s.