By Laura Smith-Spark
When French President Francois Hollande steps out before the waiting media Tuesday, it's his private life that will be making the headlines.
While he may want to talk about the state of the French economy, the gathered reporters will probably bay for answers about the President's alleged affair with a French actress.
This will be Hollande's first appearance before the media since the claims surfaced in the French tabloid Closer linking Hollande romantically to actress Julie Gayet.
The allegations, which emerged Friday, have sparked a media firestorm of a kind not normally seen in France, where privacy is closely guarded. They have also prompted the continued hospitalization of France's first lady, Valerie Trierweiler.
According to French national daily Le Monde, Hollande's news conference -- the first of 2014 and only his third in office -- was supposed to be a chance for the embattled President, who has seen his popularity slump since his 2012 election, to relaunch his agenda.
Instead, it is a "catastrophic scenario," the newspaper reports, where he will instead seek to deal with questions about his private life as briefly as possible and turn the focus back to economic matters.
Jean-Francois Cope, leader of the opposition UMP, told television channel France 5 over the weekend that the claims were "disastrous for the image of the presidential office," adding that the story was dominating international media coverage of France.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe, also of the UMP, is quoted by CNN affiliate BFMTV as saying that "many people overseas who specialize in 'French bashing' are having a field day."
Asked if there should be moves to formalize the position of the first lady -- in contrast to the United States, the partner of the French President has no defined status -- Juppe said that might not be the solution.
"In France, we love status. We can create a status for the first lady and for the second lady as well, perhaps," he joked.
Patrice Biancone, head of Trierweiler's Elysee office, told CNN on Sunday that the first lady had been hospitalized since Friday. He said that she "needed rest" and that it was hoped she would leave the hospital early this week.
"We all know why she went in after the story came out," said Biancone, clearly making the link between the revelations of the magazine and Trierweiler's hospitalization.
Hollande and Trierweiler are expected on a state visit to the United States next month, at the invitation of Barack and Michelle Obama. Their itinerary includes a state dinner at the White House on February 11.
It's not known if the questions about his private life will have any impact on the travel plans.
Hollande, 59, left his longtime common-law wife, Segolene Royal -- the mother of his four children -- for Trierweiler, 48, before the 2012 presidential election.
The two are not married but live together, and she makes official state appearances.
They met when Trierweiler was a reporter for Paris Match magazine, a publication she still works for.
Right to privacy
Closer reported that Hollande had been slipping out of the back door of the Elysee Palace and hopping on a motor scooter driven by a bodyguard to Gayet's apartment. The magazine also said the bodyguard brought croissants to the apartment one morning.
The story has prompted questions in French media about the President's right to privacy, whether his security may have been jeopardized during his alleged liaisons and about Trierweiler's future status as first lady.
Hollande has not confirmed or denied the alleged affair but has threatened legal action. A statement from his entourage Friday to news agency Agence France-Presse said the President "deeply condemns the attacks on the right to privacy which he has a right to like every other citizen."
A survey last month by French polling organization Ifop gave Hollande an approval rating of 22%, a rise of two points from the previous month, when he hit a record low.
Hollande, who was elected after campaigning to put growth before austerity and introduce higher taxes on the rich, has been urged by his European partners and international institutions to be bolder with his economic reforms.
France's faltering economic performance last year, accompanied by stubbornly high unemployment figures, led to fears the second-biggest economy in the eurozone could act as a brake on the region's fragile recovery.
CNN's Ralph Ellis contributed to this report.
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