PARIS: French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday he is going through "painful moments" in his personal life after a magazine report that he is having a secret affair with an actress.
Hollande's partner, journalist Valerie Trierweiler, has been hospitalized since Friday, when Closer published photos it said proved Hollande's liaison with Julie Gayet. The report has heaped new pressure on the already unpopular Hollande.
He was asked at a major public appearance Tuesday whether Trierweiler remains the first lady. In his first comments since the magazine report, Hollande responded: "Everyone in his or her personal life can go through ordeals - that's the case with us."
The latest revelations call into question whether a complex personal life can be private for someone with round-the-clock bodyguards, and about the role of "first lady" in France. Trierweiler is the first person to hold the post who was not married to the president.
Hollande said he will clarify who the first lady is before he takes a presidential trip to the United States on Feb. 11, but he wouldn't comment further.
The pictures published in Closer included one of a man the magazine said was Hollande being ferried by motorcycle to an apartment where Gayet waited.
Twenty years ago, the same photographer, Sebastien Valiela, rocked France's political establishment with images that revealed the secret family of then-President Francois Mitterrand, showing the Socialist leader emerging from a restaurant with the daughter he had never acknowledged.
The issue even reached the floor of parliament Tuesday. A leading legislator from the opposition conservative UMP party accused the president of taking unreasonable risks with his security.
"The president is not a normal citizen during his term. He is the chief of our armies. He is the keystone of our institutions. His protection should not suffer from any amateurism," Jacob said in the National Assembly. "The president should be aware of the level of responsibility that he exercises, be aware that his role is greater than his person, and be aware that he incarnates the image of France in the eyes of the world."
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault tried to defend his boss, insisting that Hollande "has only one concern ... the future of France, the return to growth, the fight for jobs" and that the debate about his private life "isn't worthy of a great democracy."
Photographer Valiela said he was surprised at the lack of security for Hollande, whose government has been repeatedly threatened by al-Qaida.
"To go to the rendezvous with Julie Gayet, he was taking some risks," he told RTL. "As soon as he got into the apartment, his guards left."
Francois Rebsamen, a Socialist lawmaker who counts himself among Hollande's friends, said the revelations showed the entire idea of a first lady was obsolete.
"Francois Hollande himself said it at one point: You elect a person. And then this person can live alone, can be single, can live with another man or a woman. It's no one's business and it doesn't come into play," he told RTL radio on Tuesday.
Hollande, who has four children from a previous relationship with a leading politician, was elected as a "Monsieur Normal" in a backlash against his flamboyant predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy.
Dominique Moisi, a French political analyst, said Hollande - who was already the most unpopular president in modern French history before the recent revelations - had brought the scrutiny on himself.
"He wanted to impress the French with the fact that he was a normal man, that he was a man of dignity, simplicity, moral rigor," he said. "Suddenly the French are discovering that he is like others, but in a less glorious manner, even a ridiculous manner."