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Thu, May 10, 2012
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France's first unwed first lady may pose diplomatic dilemmas

PARIS - Taking over from a supermodel should not be a problem for Valerie Trierweiler, who has plenty of glamour of her own, but making state visits abroad as France's first unmarried first lady just might.

There is some speculation as to whether Trierweiler, whose partner Francois Hollande was elected Socialist president on Sunday, will marry her man before he gets the keys to the Elysee Palace on May 15.

If she does not, certain host countries may face some embarrassment as to the proper protocol to receive an unmarried head of state turning up with an unwed woman on his arm.

Trierweiler, a twice-divorced 47-year-old journalist and mother of three teenagers who says she plans to continue her media career and combine it with her first lady role, recently dismissed the issue.

"I'm not sure it will come up all that much. Maybe on a visit to the pope? Frankly, it really is not an aspect that bothers me. This question of marriage is above all a part of our private life," the brunette told AFP.

Apart from the Vatican, conservative countries that might view her unmarried status as a diplomatic dilemma include the Arab Gulf states, where Islamic traditions apply, and in conservative societies like India.

When President Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-winger who lost Sunday's vote, made his first trip to the Gulf in January 2008, he had to travel without ex-supermodel Carla Bruni, whom he was dating but had not yet married.

Islam forbids cohabitation outside marriage and arch-conservative Muslim kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia might look very unfavourably on a foreign leader turning up with his partner.

India is another country where Sarkozy - who married Bruni in February 2008 just a few months after divorcing his second wife - caused diplomatic uncertainty.

Indian and French officials engaged in deep talks over how Bruni would be treated during her husband's state visit, which came before their marriage and was to include a trip to the Taj Mahal, known as "the monument to love".

The press in India - where marriage and a family are seen as the most important goals in life - was abuzz over whether the couple would share a hotel suite and where Bruni would sit at a formal banquet.

In the end, Bruni did not join Sarkozy in India, but the couple did return after their wedding to visit the Taj Mahal.

The status of Trierweiler - who was revealed as Hollande's lover when he separated from the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, who in 2007 lost to Sarkozy in a presidential election - could also cause problems.

"Typically we only give protocol facilities to a spouse," Indian foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin told AFP on Monday. "But I don't know the details of this case and we can't really answer this question."

A French foreign ministry official said that most countries to which a French president travels are happy to accommodate his wishes and that in the 21st century being unmarried did not pose a major problem.

"If we tell them 'treat this person as the president's wife', then they will do so," predicted the official, who asked not be named.

The married but separated president of France's neighbour, Germany, recently sparked controversy in conservative circles when he decided to move into his official residence in Berlin with his girlfriend.

In France, Hollande's domestic arrangements are mentioned in passing in the media or in private conversations, but have sparked no public debate.

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