The president of France, Francois Hollande, is not a man famed for sartorial snappiness. His work wardrobe consists of neutral ties and unexceptional suits in safe, dark colours.

Much was made in the run-up to his electoral victory in May of his reputation as "Mr Normal" - a necessary counterpoint to the flashiness of his Cuban-heeled predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who became known as "President Bling Bling". So it was understandable, perhaps, that for Hollande's first official photograph with the newly formed Government, he turned to his partner of more than seven years for advice on what to wear.

His girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, knows how to dress for the cameras. Trierweiler agreed to help Hollande pick out a suit and tie, but added pointedly: "Don't expect me just to be doing this from now on."

It is an anecdote that neatly encapsulates France's new first lady. Beneath the exquisite exterior - the immaculately coiffed hair, the subtle makeup, the open-necked shirts with precisely the right number of buttons left undone - there lies a steely resolve to be much more than just a presidential consort.


"She's a person who has always lived by herself, for herself," explains Alix Bouilhaguet, who co-authored La Frondeuse (The Troublemaker), a biography of Trierweiler. "She is incapable of living in the shadow of a partner - even when her partner is the President."

Trierweiler's refusal to play the role of pliant wife is refreshing. But in France, it has done her no favours: a recent poll for VSD magazine found that 67 per cent of French people had a negative view of her.

France can still be a profoundly sexist society where women are expected to fit neatly into certain pigeonholes. Trierweiler, who is neither an unapologetic career-woman nor a devoted wife who has forsaken her own ambitions for the sake of her man (and, by extension, the country) poses an impossible conundrum for the electorate.

On one hand, she is a strong assertive woman who made her way up the ranks from modest beginnings. On the other hand, she is capable of outbursts of jealousy and neediness, played out on the national stage to the embarrassment of her partner and his voters. No one knows quite what to make of her.

Partly, Trierweiler is a victim of her own uncertain status. She and Hollande remain unmarried and he is on record as saying he believes marriage is a "bourgeois" institution.

As such, she has no official standing as first lady and yet she has been forced to give up her job as a political journalist for Paris Match so as to avoid accusations of bias. Instead, she writes the occasional book review for the magazine, insisting she must continue to support her children (three teenage boys from her second marriage to journalist and academic Denis Trierweiler).

But the editor has announced he will not be renewing her contract at the end of the year.

Throughout it all, she continues to have her own office in the Elysee Palace and five personal assistants - the cause of much grumbling in the press at a time of cutbacks. The former first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy recently urged the couple to marry in order to make things "simpler".

But the French electorate has also been taken aback by allegations published in La Frondeuse that Trierweiler was reportedly sleeping with a married conservative minister, Patrick Devedjian, while she was having a relationship with Hollande. At the time, Hollande was still living with Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children and a senior Socialist politician in her own right.

Trierweiler is suing the authors over the so-called "menage a six". Her impulsiveness has got her into considerable trouble. In June, Trierweiler caused a public outcry when she tweeted her support for the dissident Socialist candidate Olivier Falorni. Falorni was standing for election in La Rochelle against Hollande's ex, Royal. According to one source, the tweet was sent in an impetuous moment of anger from the Elysee Palace after she discovered Hollande had endorsed his former partner behind Trierweiler's back, who was said to have telephoned the President at the office where he was in a meeting and screamed at him.

Royal went on to lose the election. As a result, her furious children no longer speak to their father's girlfriend, despite Trierweiler issuing a public apology. Last month, Royal said Trierweiler was suffering from "Rebecca syndrome" - a reference to Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel about a second wife obsessed by her husband's first marriage.

"If he loves Valerie Trierweiler it's because she embodies a certain kind of freedom and transgression that he doesn't allow himself," explains Bouilhaguet. "He is discreet and introverted. She is explosive. They complete themselves as a couple.

"She was indispensable to Hollande's election campaign. She helped him, accompanied him, understood him when no one thought he could one day become president. But once he was elected, she had to cope with seeing him grow away from her. She likes to maintain an exclusive rapport with him ... but the President's men don't give her an easy ride because they think she undermines his popularity."

It remains to be seen whether Trierweiler will prove to be an electoral help or hindrance to Hollande, who has the dubious distinction of being the most unpopular French president at the six-month mark of a mandate: a mere 36 per cent of French people have confidence in him according to the latest poll for Le Figaro magazine. Trierweiler is not faring much better. But whatever her future holds as first lady, it would surely be a shame if all it consisted of was picking out the best suits for her man to wear.

- Observer