Paris - French President Francois Hollande vowed on Tuesday to deal with the fallout from his affair with an actress in private, defiantly batting away questions over the future of Valerie Trierweiler.
Looking stiff and stressed at a packed press conference, the Socialist leader admitted the couple were going through “painful moments” and indicated that the status of his long-term girlfriend would be clarified before a scheduled trip to the US next month.
Trierweiler, France's de facto First Lady, has been invited to accompany Hollande on an official visit including an overnight stay at the White House.
She has been in hospital since Friday with stress linked to last week's revelation that Hollande, 59, has been having a secret liaison with Julie Gayet, 41.
Asked directly if Trierweiler was still France's First Lady, Hollande insisted on the troubled couple's right to privacy.
“I understand your question and I'm sure you will understand my response,” he said.
“Everyone in their personal lives can go through tough times. That is the case (for me). These are painful moments.
“But I have one principle: these private affairs are dealt with in private. This is neither the time nor the place to do it so I will not be responding to any questions about my private life.”
The instruction did the trick and Hollande visibly relaxed as it became apparent he was not going be given the kind of grilling a leader in Britain or the United States could have expected in similar circumstances.
After the opening question, Hollande was not asked directly about Trierweiler until questioned on her state of health nearly two hours later. “She's resting and I have no further comment to make,” he replied.
In Washington, White House spokesman Jay Carney would not be drawn on whether Trierweiler would be visiting and simply said US President Barack Obama was looking forward to seeing Hollande.
Trierweiler, 48, was admitted to hospital hours after glossy magazine Closer published a series of photos showing Hollande and Gayet arriving separately for trysts at a flat close to the presidential Elysee Palace.
Media reports claimed the former journalist was suffering from low blood pressure, exhaustion and a “severe case of the blues”.
Hollande reiterated his “total indignation” over Closer's intrusion into his private life but said he would not be taking legal action over the report, which he has not denied.
Friends and political allies of Hollande had urged him to move quickly to clarify the situation by stating clearly whether he is still in a relationship with Trierweiler.
Instead, he opted to put off a public announcement of any decision the couple have made about their future.
Friends of Trierweiler have been quoted in French media as saying she is willing to forgive Hollande if he ends things with Gayet.
As well as the position of Trierweiler, who has a staff of five funded by the taxpayers, the affair has raised questions about whether Hollande risked his own safety by visiting the actress at a borrowed flat close to the Elysee.
Sebastien Valiela, the photographer who took the incriminating pictures, said it was obvious that Hollande was inadequately protected.
But the president insisted his security had never been compromised. “No one needs to have any worries about that,” he said.
Hollande, whose approval ratings were already the lowest of any president of recent times, appears to have avoided any significant political damage from the scandal.
Polls suggest just over three in four voters believe Hollande's love life is his own business and one survey even showed a slight upturn in support for the beleaguered leader.
France's shoulder-shrugging reaction left British newspapers in disbelief, chastising their counterparts for their “deferent” attitude at the press conference.
“Would he get away with this in Britain or America? Possibly not,” said The Guardian's Jon Henley. “But, outraged tweets by Anglo-Saxon hacks notwithstanding, this was France.”
Twice-divorced Trierweiler has officially been Hollande's partner since 2007, when he left Segolene Royal, a fellow heavyweight in the Socialist Party with whom he has four children.
Dressed in a sombre navy blue suit and matching tie, the Socialist leader made no mention of the turmoil in his private life during an opening 45 minutes dedicated to outlining a new pro-business economic policy aimed at spurring growth and creating jobs.
A centrepiece of the plan is a 30 billion euro ($40 billion) cut in payroll taxes by 2017 through the abolition of so-called family contributions paid by companies and independent workers.
Hollande vowed that the reduction in company taxation would not be balanced by a corresponding increase in taxes on households.