PARIS – Only in France. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the superstar model-turned-songstress with a freewheeling lifestyle, now hands the job of first lady to a twice-divorced journalist who's the first presidential partner to enter the Elysee Palace without a ring on her finger.
And as Valerie Trierweiler prepares for her new role alongside President-elect Francois Hollande, in the wings is the woman whose man she stole — Segolene Royal, the mother of Hollande's four children and a former presidential candidate now seeking her own seat of political power.
So what's happening in the land of French officialdom, where protocol and social niceties still count? Will Trierweiler's name be listed on formal invitations to presidential events, even though she's not his spouse?
It's the head of state who decides, so where's the problem?
Intrigue, love lost, love found and power struggles accompanied the new first couple on their journey to the presidency, which Hollande takes over from Nicolas Sarkozy on May 15. The Hollande-Trierweiler couple gave each other a big kiss on the mouth at the victory fete watched by cheering thousands at the Bastille.
FOLLOWING CARLA'S FOOTSTEPS
Bruni-Sarkozy, who married the outgoing president after he divorced his second wife while in office, adapted to the job of first lady like slipping into a silver slipper.
Past romantic adventures with Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton faded into distant memory and she cultivated a low profile as France's "premiere dame," charming and disarming other heads of state.
Some think Trierweiler may do even better.
"Valerie is perfect. She's so French," Paris-based fashion writer Rebecca Voight insisted. "It's what French women see in themselves. ... She kept a respectful distance from Hollande during the campaign and also had her career, which people respect."
Privilege describes the life, past and present, of Sarkozy's Italian-born wife, who comes from a wealthy Turin family. Trierweiler's roots are more humble. One of six children, she grew up in a modest neighborhood in Angers, in western France, then studied political science at the Sorbonne.
"I didn't choose to have a public life. I chose Francois," she said in an interview with Paris-Match in October. "But I will adapt."
THE VALERIE-FRANCOIS STORY
Elegant and intelligent, Trierweiler, who has three teenage sons from her previous marriage to a colleague at the magazine Paris Match, is 10 years younger than the 57-year-old Hollande. She met Hollande years ago while covering the Socialist Party, which he headed for 11 years until 2008.
Their relationship flowered starting in 2005 as Hollande's then-partner Royal was beginning to prepare her own presidential candidacy.
Hollande and Royal maintained a pact of silence about their crumbling relationship — broken only after she lost to Sarkozy in 2007. Royal then announced that she had asked Hollande to leave their family home.
Royal, who soldiered through Hollande's presidential campaign with occasional appearances, now wants a piece of the political pie — as speaker of the lower house of parliament should the Socialists win June legislative elections.
As for Trierweiler, she cheered Hollande on at rallies but also kept an office at the Socialists' campaign headquarters, assuring she was never far from earshot.
And on Tuesday, she let journalists waiting outside the couple's Paris apartment know who's in charge with a Tweet: "I thank my colleagues for respecting our private life and that of our neighbors. Please don't camp in front of our home."
Some political enemies of Hollande threw darts, with a lawmaker in Sarkozy's conservative UMP party comparing Trierweiler to a Rottweiler.
"All these attacks, one is lower than the next," the incoming first lady lamented on Radio Hollande, a station set up as part of his presidential campaign.
UNWED AT THE ELYSEE
Some mundane problems will need to be resolved, namely where the first couple will reside. Eschewing tradition — and the Elysee Palace — they want to remain in their own apartment, located in a busy Paris neighborhood and said to be a security nightmare.
And how will their unwed status play to the crowd of official visitors or when traveling abroad, particularly to countries sensitive about male-female ties outside wedlock?
Will they simply break down and get married?
"This isn't something you do under the pretext that you're going to be president," Hollande said in an interview with the magazine Elle. "The decision is ours."
Trierweiler wants to keep working even though she has been booted from her job as a political reporter to avoid conflict of interest.
"Even if my press card is withdrawn, I will die a journalist. It's in my soul," she told Radio Hollande.
In her new role, she is walking through the other side of the looking glass, and she knows it.
"This role makes me a little uncomfortable, but I will manage very well if it is not limited just to that. I want to represent the image of France, do the necessary smiling, be well-dressed, but it shouldn't stop there. I will not be a trophy wife," she told The Times of London.
Carla Bruni-Sarkozy suffered legions of tasteless jokes about why she hooked up with Sarkozy — and more tasteless Tweets this week about whether she'll leave him now that he's out of power.
And she too struggled against the image of the trophy wife, according to Robb Young, author of "Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians and Fashion."
"On the world stage, of course, Carla outshone many of her first lady peers at the time, but this was more to do with the star power she accumulated during her years in the fashion industry and the natural charisma that no doubt helped to elevate her to supermodel status in the first place," he wrote in an email.
"What she spent most of her time as first lady trying to do — in terms of her style at least — was to downplay her inherent glamour quotient, detract from her beauty and whitewash some of her past by choosing rather demure and sometimes downright prim yet stately outfits," he said.
He noted that Bruni-Sarkozy had a career and world-famous name before ever marrying Sarkozy, and she has a foundation working to fight AIDS and other diseases.
"She will always be remembered for many more things than her comparatively brief career at the Elysee Palace," Young said.
Thomas Adamson and Cecile Brisson in Paris and Jocelyn Noveck in New York contributed to this report.