Political vegetables

English: Michelle Obama with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

For a while there – a short while – it looked as if the life of a political wife might be changing for the better. For a while, it looked as if having an IQ in three figures might be becoming less of an impediment to your spouse’s political progress.

In America, the vacant-eyed Laura Bush packed her bags and went back to Stepford, and the world greeted Michelle Obama, with her capable arms and her Harvard law degree. France, meanwhile, finally got rid of the exasperating Carla Bruni and replaced her as Premiere Dame with a woman with a master’s in political science from the Sorbonne and a 20-year career in journalism.

But any hopes that the era of simpering ‘n’ sympathy was over were quickly quelled. Michelle Obama is now using her doctorate in law to run a vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And in France, Valerie Trierweiler, who promised to revolutionise the office of first lady, has instead turned it into an embarrassing and unseemly cat fight.

It began when French president Francois Hollande pledged his support for his ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, in her bid for a parliamentary seat in La Rochelle. Valerie was put out. She is reportedly jealous of Francois’s former partner, with whom he spent a quarter-century and who is mother of his four children. You might think it would be Segolene who would be jealous, as she is the one who lost both her man and her two chances of a residency in the Elysee Palace, but no.

Valerie took to the twitter machine (no modern-day melodrama being complete without a tweet) to back Segolene’s opponent instead. She wrote: “Courage to Olivier Falorni, who was not unworthy, who fights alongside Rochellais for so many years in a selfless commitment,” or as far as those of us with school French are concerned, that’s what she wrote.

Falorni won the electoral battle last weekend, with 63% of the vote, and Segolene, who has now lost more battles than Napoleon, was furious.

Without meaning to be unkind, Francois looks more like the sort of man who enjoys one of those cordial but lacklustre marriages that last 60 years. He doesn’t look the type to find himself in the middle of a humiliating middle-aged love triangle. But then this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a homely French politician cast into the spotlight by a striking woman. (All three characters in this drama are too old for it but, being French, the two women have been able to keep their cheekbones.)

Anyway, so much for a fresh, new, progressive intelligence in political life. Valerie promised to be a new broom, sweeping away all those silly expectations about trophy wives. Instead, people in France are now talking about Francois’s failure to “control” his girlfriend. It’s like ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. It’s as bad a setback as Hillary baking cookies, or Michelle Obama hoeing her life away.

To be fair, the photos of Michelle in her vegetable garden can be justified on the grounds that they might help to ensure that Mitt Romney’s wife doesn’t become the next Flotus. But that doesn’t stop you wondering why a man’s political struggle must entail a woman in the background waving radishes.

The First Lady has to be gracious, discreet, apolitical, stylish but not glamorous, and unambitious to the point of self-annihilation. She must be interested in: her husband, her children, the Nation’s Children, baking, interior design, world peace, and something to do with the environment, in more or less that order.

And, what does the First Gentleman have to be? Nothing. Look at Martin McAleese, who got away with having ostensibly no personality at all for 14 years. Denis Thatcher was famous portrayed as being interested in only gin and golf. And you may not know this, but Mister Angela Merkel is a quantum chemist who keeps himself to himself.

It’s easier for men to be invisible because people aren’t perpetually scrutinising how much weight they’re putting on. All the same, I think it only fair that political husbands be expected to conform to slightly demeaning gender stereotypes in the domestic field as well.

For instance, they should be obliged to demonstrate that they can tinker unproductively for days under the bonnet of a 1967 Austin Healey. They should have a proven ability to leave DIY projects unfinished, while being the supreme authority on the quality of those DIY projects left unfinished by other political husbands. They should build forts and train sets ‘for the kids to play with’.

Above all they should maintain a studied but polite indifference towards all the emotional dramas in their partners’ lives. This is something Francois will need to get the hang of – not as political spouse but as president.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012

Troubled families etc

Learning to Count - December 1961

Learning to Count – December 1961 (Photo credit: frontdrive34)

HOW often do you get to tut-tut at the irresponsible antics of a wealthy, privately-educated, goody-two-shoes conservative? Almost never. Those people inherit from their ancestors a generations-old presumption of blamelessness, and they do all their misbehaving behind closed doors, where the plebs can’t see them.

So why, then, didn’t people make more of the fact that British prime minister David Cameron left one of his three children behind in a pub? It appears the Cameron family were lunching with friends in the Plough Inn near Chequers. David and Samantha left in separate cars, each assuming their eldest daughter, Nancy, was with the other.

Obviously they neglected to do a head count. Or maybe they counted as far as two and then got suddenly, inexplicably tired and had to stop counting. Or maybe they need George Osborne with them if they’re counting as far as three.

What a rare opportunity for schadenfreude, especially as the news emerged in the very same week that Cameron’s government launched its so-called ‘troubled families programme’, which targets 120,000 impoverished families in Britain and aims to “/turn them around/” (italics mine, just to emphasis the creepiness) by the end of the Tories’ term in office.

Tut tut, I say. Isn’t it a bit rich, the prime minister pointing the finger at bad parents, while losing his own children willy-nilly in bars? Because as everyone knows, if a ‘troubled family’ left their daughter behind in a pub, social services would be called. And should he really be taking his children to bars in the first place? Tut tut tut.

But it didn’t happen. Instead of raining censure on Cameron, parents privately blushed on his behalf, remembering the times when they have done something similar.

Almost no one, it seems, hasn’t parked a pram outside a supermarket and wandered off home without it. Practically everyone has at some point clean forgotten they’ve just given birth, and simply left their new-born at home and gone to Bermuda on holidays. I know one couple who actually moved house and left their young son in the old place. He has been using the incident for leverage against them ever since.

Personally, I never got left anywhere as a child, by dint of having a mother who is famous for always keeping her considerable wits about her. But no one can ever forget the childhood horror of being briefly, accidentally separated from their parents.

One of the worst aspects of life as a small child is the unappealing vantage point your height affords. Everyone adult arse is just about at eye level. Left suddenly, frighteningly alone in a department store or railway station, for instance, you’re surrounded by nothing less than a forest of arses. You just can’t see your way out, and because of the unbearable proximity of all those pungent buttocks, you don’t want to push your way out either.

However, Nancy Cameron allegedly did not panic; it was reported that she was found “helping the staff” in the Plough Inn when her mother returned to collect her. I don’t know which is worse, the thought that that is a lie or the thought that it might be true.

Clearly the story might have been more damning for the Camerons, depending on their daughter’s circumstances when found. She might have been capering about the snug with a meat cleaver, throwing back Captain Morgan by the neck, and vandalising the fruit machines in an anti-social fashion. Or – and this would really be the most typical behaviour in an eight-year-old girl who’s been forgotten by her parents – she might have been sobbing uncontrollably in the pub toilets, making Mum and Dad look really bad.

So it would make sense for the Camerons to spin it a little. But the idea that it’s true – that Nancy was really helping the staff – beggars belief. What kind of help can she possibly have been supplying? Juggling tequila bottles in the manner of Tom Cruise in ‘Cocktail’? Demonstrating the two-part pour? Refreshing the nut bowls? Humouring drunks?

And what kind of abandoned eight-year-old starts helping the bar staff instead of weeping into her Dandelion & Burdock? Obviously the kind of plucky, girl guidey, horse sensey, pull-yourself-togethery eight-year-old who’s a future leader of the Conservative Party. Ugh.

Had it taken any longer for her parents to collect her, Nancy would probably have found time to start volunteering in a local soup kitchen. Then, having won the confidence of the indigent men and women there, she would have been able to instruct them in the error of their ways. “You are not a victim,” she would have told them. “Your problems are the cause, not the symptom, of the failures of society. Report to your local council to be turned around.”

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 17th June