"I wish that you love me," says Patricia, Princess of Cardiff, whose mangled English is one of the few notable differences between her character and the real-life Diana, Princess of Wales. Her would-be lover is French President Jacques-Henri Lambertye drawn, it seems, to closely resemble real-life former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. "I still hear her saying it in English," the writer reveals. "It's not my memory reminding me of it, but her voice." The florid romantic tale, titled The Princess and the President, might have passed largely unnoticed into the annals of pulp fiction were it not for the fact that its author is former President Giscard himself. Although the author remains silent amid the media furor, some newspapers have covered the book as though it might be a thinly disguised kiss-and-tell.
On Monday, Sept. 21, French daily Le Figaro ran an entire page about the book ahead of its Oct. 1 release, prompting immediate international coverage. Little wonder: Le Figaro did its best to help jolt public interest by hyping the enigma of whether the obvious similarities between the lovers referred to in the title and Giscard and Diana hinted at a real-life affair between the author and the British princess who died in a car crash in Paris in 1997.
"Fiction or reality?" Le Figaro asked in a headline alongside a November 1994 photo of a tuxedo-clad Giscard being gazed upon by a glowing Diana during a charity event. "Only the former President holds the key to this troubling story." So far, the former President isn't telling.
In the book, the 83-year-old Giscard traces the histoire d'amour between Lambertye and Princess Patricia. During a G-7 meeting at Buckingham Palace in the 1980s, the enchanting royal admits to the Frenchman she has thrown herself into charity work to escape a bleak married life. "Ten days before my marriage, my future husband told me he had a mistress and that he had decided to continue his relationship with her," she confides to her smitten presidential admirer who drops the statesman act and goes French on her.
"I kissed her hand," Lambertye continues, "and she looked at me questioningly, her eyes now slate-colored and widening as she bowed her face forward."
Eventually Lambertye makes his first overt move by holding Patricia's hand during a train ride back from a 1984 D-Day anniversary ceremony in Normandy. Similar expressions of hand endearment follow, before the pair open the seriously carnal chapter of their affair in a presidential château in Rambouillet where Giscard himself used to hold hunting expeditions in the surrounding woods.
"The ritual of the hunt was always the same," Giscard writes in yet another juxtaposition of his history and his novel.
And if such blurring of lines between imagination and reality were not enough, Giscard starts the novel with the epigraph "Promise kept." Myriad press reports of the book have paired that opener with final lines of the tale, in which Patricia tells Lambertye, "You asked my permission to write your story. I grant it to you, but you must make me a promise ..." Such subtlety is usually administered with a sledgehammer.
But could such an affair have actually happened? Certainly not in the way the book describes, because Giscard had been voted out of office and into semiretirement by 1981 the same year Diana's royal marriage launched her rise to international stardom. However, press reports speculate over whether he could have been hinting at a postpresidential liaison by describing his fictional President's affair while in office unfounded speculation fanned by Giscard's remaining tight-lipped.
Many pundits are alleging that the timing and questionable taste of Giscard's book is driven by the fact that fellow former President Jacques Chirac will publish a memoir of his own political career next month. Enduring hatred between the two men stretches back to the mid-1970s; each has waged a campaign of electoral war and political brawling against the other ever since. The Princess and the President, some pundits say, is Giscard's newest attempt to steal the limelight from his nemesis.
"Giscard wants to divert attention from Chirac's book and doesn't care how low he has to stoop or ridiculous he looks doing it," says commentator and humor writer Bruno Gaccio. "Giscard occupies the media with a laughable novel as Chirac rolls out the story of his life in politics."
However, Gaccio suggests French machismo may also be at work. "People always speak of [fellow former French President François] Mitterrand and Chirac as great ladies' men, and [current French President Nicolas] Sarkozy went out and married a top model, but who refers to Giscard as a seducer?" Gaccio asks. "No one so he's decided to do so himself, with a story whose leading lady is no longer around to debunk it."
Perhaps, but if initial press attention is matched by book sales, Giscard will laugh all the way to the bank. If so, expect inquisitive observers to watch for any sign of him forking over some of the proceeds to Diana's charities.