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France's political love triangle

RECENT EVENTS in France invert an old '60s-era slogan that the personal is the political. The defeated Socialist Party candidate for president, Ségolène Royal, recently acknowledged that she had separated from François Hollande, her civil-union partner and father of their four children -- and that she would seek to supplant him as Socialist Party leader. The vivacious "Sego" was saying that, for her, the political had become the personal.

This mélange of two realms the French have long sought to divide from each other is evident in bitter remarks from fellow Socialists. They are complaining that tensions between their presidential nominee and their party leader rendered their electoral campaign dysfunctional. One party insider said the couple's domestic troubles became a "Bermuda triangle" for the Socialists.

Now that the truth is known about the simultaneous political and private conflicts between Royal and Hollande, inescapable questions are being raised about the deceits they practiced. Candidate Royal told the press that they had considered marrying last summer -- after 27 years of unmarried partnership -- in a romantic ceremony on French Polynesia. And perhaps to send a subliminal signal to right-thinking traditionalists in the French electorate, Royal was seen wearing a wedding ring at one point in the campaign.

But now there is a complete change in what the French call the discourse. Royal is quoted in a forthcoming book on her failed campaign saying, "I have asked François Hollande to leave the house, to live his love life ( son histoire sentimentale) on his own." This has been decoded in the French press as an allusion to Hollande's ongoing liaison with a Paris-Match reporter, Valerie Trierweiler, who covered the Socialists and wrote admiring profiles of the Socialist leader.

If this were a Molière play, with the characters speaking in rhymed alexandrines, the audience at the Comédie-Française would be wreathed in wry smiles. But the farce enacted by Royal and Hollande is not so terribly funny to Socialist colleagues and voters. They have good reason to resent having the truth hidden from them for so long.

It may be that no comedy in the classical tradition is possible without disguise and deception, but an electoral campaign to determine who is to govern France should abide by other rules. Can Hollande expect to be taken seriously when, notwithstanding Royal's plan to replace him as Socialist leader, he insists their breakup is purely a "private matter" that has no "political causes or political consequences?"

It is true that a politician's private life should not be taken as an indicator of his or her ability to conduct affairs of state. But voters do not like to be lied to -- neither by politicians nor by the journalists who cover them. Not in America and not in France.