There she was on the White House lawn in April, perched on heels as thin as tent pegs while her husband shovelled earth with Donald Trump. And on a trip to China earlier this year, in a crimson jacket with military-style buttons, clutching her husband’s arm. And again in St Petersburg in the spring, at his side, mute once more, wearing a sober black shift dress and cream trench coat, as the French president Emmanuel Macron chatted to Vladimir Putin. “One is there, without being there, while being there,” the former French literature teacher mused about her role as French première dame. “It’s very strange.”
Rather a lot about Brigitte Macron’s life has been very strange. A bourgeois teacher at a Jesuit high school in the provincial French town of Amiens, married to a banker and with three children, falls for a pupil in her drama class, 24 years her junior. He is banished to Paris to finish school where he begins his rise through the country’s elite institutions. But he refuses to give her up. Eventually they marry. He ends up as president of France.
It is an improbable plot, and over the years their unusual relationship has prompted family censure, popular unease, endless speculation and malicious rumours. Perhaps the most unexpected twist has been the way that, a little over a year after her husband was elected president and at the age of 65, Madame Macron has won popular approval. She has forced the French to question what it means to be a woman and, in particular, a woman of her age. France has a complex heritage on this matter. Born in the 1950s, Brigitte Macron belongs to a generation of French women who grew up when modern notions of sex appeal were being invented in the country. France launched the bikini and Brigitte Bardot to the world. At the same time it was also pioneering feminist theory: Simone de Beauvoir’s ground-breaking work “The Second Sex” was published in 1949.
Women in France today have to navigate a double expectation. The French state provides free crèches and nursery places on the assumption that young mothers quit the kitchen for the office; but society demands that they commute in six-inch heels. There has been a cultural acceptance of predatory male behaviour that outsiders find baffling, even disturbing. When the #MeToo movement spread to France last year, Bardot, now aged 83, called it “hypocritical and ridiculous”, declaring that she “found it charming when men told me that I was beautiful or I had a nice little backside”. Her views seemed shocking outside France, but many other French actresses were similarly contemptuous of what they took to be American moralising. Bardot, and others like her, set the tone for those who grew up in the 1950s, and the patriarchal codes that underwrote her success are now being challenged. So the new French first lady, whether she likes it or not, has become a focus for discussion about the way the French see women and French women see themselves, and even how the rest of the world sees France.
Brigitte Macron has won admirers and managed to keep them. While the president’s approval rating sunk to 34% in August this year, down from 66% when elected, that of his wife remained at a healthy 67%. She seems to appeal in particular to the young and the over-65s. When the first lady visited a lycée in Dijon earlier this year, one observer described the reaction of the pupils as “quasi-hysterical”. Celebrity magazines have dubbed the phenomenon “Bibimania”. Only Bernadette Chirac, wife of Jacques Chirac, was a more popular first lady: she won respect as a local politician in her own right, as well as sympathy for tolerating her husband’s philandering.
Unlike America, the role of the French first lady comes with no particular expectation. Since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, presidential spouses have shaped the role according to their interests or personalities; some have ignored it altogether. Yvonne de Gaulle wore sensible shoes, liked to sew and once washed her husband’s socks in a basin at the Elysée Palace; she scarcely said a word in public. Her successors ranged from the modern and fashion conscious (Claude Pompidou was a friend of Coco Chanel; Carla Bruni-Sarkozy a model-turned-folk-singer) to the politically militant (Danielle Mitterrand and Madame Chirac each pursued their own causes, the former without caring about clashing with her husband). Presidential couples have included the devoted, and the volatile. In 2014 François Hollande’s partner, Valérie Trierweiler, a reporter at Paris-Match magazine, had to be hospitalised after a celebrity magazine photographed the president on the back of a scooter visiting Julie Gayet, the woman he left her for soon after. It has been a while since France has had a first lady who looks remotely comfortable, let alone happy, in the role.
In some ways, the Macrons fit a global trend rather than a French one. Political wives have not traditionally been considered an electoral asset, tending to shy away from the limelight during a campaign. In 2007 the French were taken aback – but also intrigued – when Nicolas Sarkozy imported American-style campaigning, posing with his then-wife, Cécilia, as part of his bid for the presidency.
Brigitte was a central element of the image her husband projected as a candidate. She was at his side on stage on the evening of the first-round results when he topped voting, clutching his hand, beaming and sharing his success. Nobody expects a French political spouse to reveal their baking secrets, as Hillary Clinton was encouraged to do in 1992 to establish her credentials as a dutiful wife. But in France, like America and China, personality politics have become increasingly dominant. That has turned the wives of presidents into an essential part of the act.
For Brigitte Macron, with her honey-blonde bob and Ultrabrite smile, the electoral campaign was a crash course in public life. Four years ago, she was still teaching at a private Catholic lycée in the swanky 16th arrondissement of Paris. Her husband’s astonishing rise to the presidency last year, backed by a party he created only 13 months previously, forced her to learn quickly how to live within the unforgiving strictures of public life. An independent-minded woman, who is, as she puts it, “no vase of flowers”, Brigitte has had to adapt to existing in the shadow of her husband, visible and scrutinised, but silent.
Since moving into the Elysée Palace, where the first couple live, Brigitte has spoken very little in public about the role. “I don’t feel like a first lady,” she told Elle magazine last year, considering the term to be merely “the translation of an American expression”. She understands the limits to her legitimacy: “The French elected Emmanuel, not me.” When Emmanuel last year established a charter to clarify the role of presidential spouse as an official position – after suggestions that the role be formalised proved deeply unpopular – the idea, say her staff, was to make her purpose unambiguous and her budget transparent. The president’s partner, the charter states, is there to “represent France” and support charitable or cultural events that contribute to promoting the country; she receives no clothes budget and has only two staff members. Brigitte borrows items from French fashion houses and sees her design choices as a way to promote French créateurs. On occasion, she can still be spotted out and about in Paris on evening walks, her advisers by her side, a cap pulled down over her forehead. She refuses to be shut away without any outside contact. In public, she stands dutifully by her husband’s side, but she has also made it clear that she refuses to walk a step behind him.
The couple can scarcely complain about the scrutiny their relationship has drawn. During the election campaign, they enthusiastically displayed their private life, sitting side by side on a chairlift in a ski resort in the Pyrenees, and wandering hand in hand through the dunes on the northern French coast. The Macrons hired a well-known French publicist, Mimi Marchand, to sculpt their image and handle the paparazzi. Emmanuel’s public profile made their marriage the subject of perpetual fascination and disbelief, and he accepted the need to put his private life on display as a cold transactional deal. “I sell. Like washing powder. Nothing more,” he once commented. Nonetheless it was not quite what Brigitte had bargained for when she first welcomed a teenager with a shock of wavy hair into her drama club.
Brigitte Marie-Claude Trogneux was born in 1953 into the fifth generation of a family of chocolate-makers in Amiens. Their flagship boutique still lies on the rue Delambre in the town centre. It was a comfortable bourgeois life in a conservative France that was still more than a decade away from the social upheavals of May 1968. The young Brigitte’s father was director of the local tennis club and became president of the Picardy Tennis League. The family voted for centre-right candidates; they spent weekends at their villa in Le Touquet, a seaside town near Calais with a golf course and tennis club, and the resort of choice for the northern bourgeoisie.
Though Brigitte is the elder half in her relationship, the key to understanding her, says a friend, is that she was the baby of her own family. The youngest of six children, Brigitte was 20 years younger than her eldest sibling, Jean-Claude. As a result, her school friend Béatrice Leroux told Maëlle Brun, a biographer, “she enjoyed great freedom. This came out notably in the tone she adopted with her father…There was between them a form of camaraderie to which he never took offence. On the contrary, he was amused by it and never put her in her place.”
The teenage Brigitte did well at school and gained a mention très bien (distinction) in the baccalauréat, the French school-leavers’ certificate. In Brun’s account, her parents generously rewarded her good grades, at one point giving her a Piaggio scooter. The young Brigitte pinned Clint Eastwood posters on her bedroom walls and at weekends swapped her Catholic school’s dowdy uniform for the latest miniskirts. “I wasn’t a very well-behaved girl,” Brigitte told Elle. “I was often in detention for impertinence.” Although she describes herself today as a natural optimist, her youth was not all carefree insouciance. Her pregnant elder sister was killed with her husband in a car crash when Brigitte was aged eight, and her six-year-old niece died the following year. Brigitte has spoken on occasion of how she constantly senses mortality around her, and has long suffered from a “terror of death”.
Emmanuel’s family too knew death early – his parent’s first child was still-born – but her more earnest husband had a very different childhood to that of Brigitte. The young Emmanuel, who grew up on a terraced street in the same neighbourhood of Amiens, shied away from boums, or early-adolescent parties, preferring “piano and literature” and “time with my grandmother”. Emmanuel’s teachers recall a pupil who spoke to them as equals and was mature beyond his years. “Emmanuel wasn’t cool,” one of his school friends told me. Indeed, in some ways, Brigitte appears to be the younger spirit in their relationship. She is the one who sports above-the-knee dresses and the latest Louis Vuitton outfits while he, off-duty, wears unfashionably cut jeans and démodé roll-neck jumpers. In June, when the Elysée opened its doors to a DJ, she was twisting to the beat in the palace courtyard while her husband swayed hesitantly by her side. “He married a troublemaker,” she once said, “knowingly.”
The story of their improbable liaison is now familiar. At the age of 15, Emmanuel Macron joined the after-school theatre club run by Madame Auzière, and played the part of a scarecrow in the school’s adaptation of “La Comédie du langage”, an absurdist work by Jean Tardieu. In the following year, Emmanuel’s penultimate at school, the group put on “L’Art de la comédie”, by Eduardo de Filippo, a play that explores the boundaries between art, theatre and politics. Since there weren’t enough parts for all the pupils, the teenage Emmanuel suggested to his theatre teacher that they write in some new roles and adapt the play together. “The writing brought us together every Friday, and created an incredible proximity,” Brigitte later told Paris-Match. “I felt myself sliding; he did too.” Despite the efforts of the teenager’s parents to keep them apart, by exiling him to an elite state lycée in Paris to finish his schooling, the pupil insisted that he would be back one day to marry her. And so he did.
The story of their liaison came out as Emmanuel’s political career got going. “In a relationship with his ex-teacher! She’s 20 years older!” screeched the headline of Closer, a French gossip magazine in 2014, shortly after Emmanuel was appointed economy minister in President Hollande’s Socialist government. For many years before their marriage in 2007, the Macrons had faced the censure of provincial Amiens. The celebrity press turned up the pitch. By the time her husband announced his bid for the presidency in late 2016, Brigitte was mocked as a wannabe “first grandmother” (Sébastien, her elder son, is two years older than her husband). Bourgeois Paris frowned at her short hem length. For months, a rumour circulated in Paris that their marriage was a sham, cover for Emmanuel’s secret gay life. Emmanuel realised that he had to puncture the rumour when his press attaché told him that her hair stylist had declared that it was the reason he would never be elected president. Mid-campaign Macron went public, mocking the idea that he had a body double who led a secret gay life. The rumours were odious on two counts, he went on to tell TÊTU, a gay magazine: the homophobia behind the assumption that a gay man could not be elected president; and the misogyny underlying the idea that a man who lives with a woman 24 years older than him could only be “either gay or a closet gigolo”. No sooner had her husband stepped in to the presidency than Brigitte had to endure Donald Trump commenting to Emmanuel in front of the cameras on a visit to France: “She’s in such good physical shape.”
By and large, the French have since come to accept this unusual relationship and even respect it. More importantly, for many French women, it serves as an antidote to the patriarchal social and political codes that had long made it acceptable for male French politicians to be accompanied by women half their age, but not the other way round. The age gap between the Macrons, after all, is the same as that between Donald and Melania Trump, and not much greater than the 18 years that separate Hollande and Gayet. “She made this age gap a strength,” Philippe Besson, a novelist, told French radio. “Suddenly, a woman over 60 was no longer condemned to invisibility.” Not that everyone embraced the relationship. In a documentary earlier this year Catherine Nay, a French writer, commented that it “was perfectly incomprehensible for many men, and perfectly gratifying for women”.
The need to defy stereotypes about age is particularly pressing in a country such as France. In its commercial and cinematic culture, on advertising billboards and in the plethora of anti-ageing skincare products which its globally successful cosmetics firms turn out, the country’s celebration of female youthfulness is particularly pervasive. So Brigitte Macron, with her loathing of age-appropriate floral prints, has liberated women of a certain age to be themselves, wear what they want and defy social pressures. “Of course, we have breakfast together, me with my wrinkles, him with his fresh face, but that’s how it is,” Brigitte has joked. There is something refreshingly rebellious about her that appeals to the subversive French spirit.
Yet though the French first lady has been progressive about relationships and ageing, she is doing far less to reshape other stereotypes about women. Some observers suggest that Brigitte has turned into a model for a new sort of modern French woman. Marlène Schiappa, a feminist former blogger who now serves as junior minister for equality in Emmanuel’s government, has even compared her to Simone de Beauvoir. Yet Brigitte’s few comments on women’s rights have been strikingly mundane. “I think that the 21st century will be feminine, that it’s women who will, perhaps, find a way out for this world,” she once said, cryptically. “If that’s being feminist, then I am one, but with men not against them.” That distinction appeared to reflect the limits to which she was prepared to push her views.
Brigitte has helped to shape the feminist agenda of her husband. He declared last year that France was “sick with sexism”. Women make up half the ministers in his government. Brigitte is also close to Schiappa, who recently introduced a law against sexual harassment in the street. Yet Brigitte has refrained from publicly commenting on more delicate matters such as the #MeToo movement. As revelations about Hollywood reached France under the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc – out your pig – Brigitte said only that “I am very happy that women are speaking out. Maybe this will be a blessing in disguise.” She has since remained silent.
The paradox is that, in so far as Brigitte has helped to defy patriarchal French assumptions, she has done so with a thoroughly conventional approach: her look and the relationship she has with her husband. She came of age during the women’s-rights movement of the late 1960s and 1970s, when it was hard enough for mothers of young children to escape the kitchen for paid work. Brigitte was the first in her family to go to university – her elder siblings either joined the family business, or married well – and had a professional career as a teacher. Yet she also quit her job in favour of her husband’s political ambitions a year after he became economy minister, and has since then played the dutifully supportive spouse.
When her husband was at the Finance Ministry, Brigitte organised numerous dinners and encouraged him to network with celebrities, a world to which she seems particularly drawn. Indeed, some of her critics consider her to be the ambitious driving force behind him. Brigitte once declared, after all, that she encouraged him to run for the highest office in 2017 because, as she put it, “imagine what my face would look like” if he had waited another five years. Back in 1989 when living in Alsace, she even stood herself – unsuccessfully – for election as an independent municipal councillor. Since moving into the Elysée Palace, Brigitte’s public appearances have been highly conventional: playing hostess or picking out modern tapestries from the national collections. “She embodies an extremely traditional representation of the role of women,” says Frédérique Matonti, a political scientist at the Sorbonne who has published a book on sexism and politics: “That of women who know their place and help their husbands.”
In the run-up to the election, Brigitte primarily influenced the candidate’s style, diet and diary management rather than policy. She regularly sat in on campaign meetings with the inner circle. But Emmanuel, who has the cast-iron self-belief of a philosophy graduate who also studied at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, was not a candidate who needed much help with ideas, guiding principles or inspiration. In one telling moment during the campaign, captured in a documentary, Emmanuel steps onto the stage in an empty hall to rehearse a speech. Dressed in an open-necked shirt and suit, a microphone clipped to his lapel, he is preparing for an election rally. In the front row sits an attentive Brigitte in a pair of skinny jeans, her hair swept back, glasses perched on her nose, her brow furrowed. Two seats away from her sits one of Emmanuel’s closest political advisers. The instant Emmanuel finishes his trial run, with a cry of “Vive la République! Vive la France!”, his wife leaps to her feet. “Raise your voice”, she scolds, “it keeps falling,” before turning her back, with a hint of impatience, to sit down for another take. What is arresting about this scene is not just the central place that Brigitte occupies in coaching the candidate’s delivery. It is also the hint of the drama teacher and her pupil, the relationship that launched their liaison, revived through the theatrical drama of an election campaign. Emmanuel is not the creation of his former drama teacher. But her supporting role goes beyond the merely decorative.
Half a century after the May 1968 uprising, a rebellion against the conservative social mores that put France at the forefront of the women’s liberation movement, women today are still fighting some of their grandmothers’ battles. A younger generation of French women will not tolerate what Bardot considers to be a charming part of French culture. Last year 16,400 rapes were reported and there was a 10% jump in reports of sexual assault. Such is the concern that the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, recently ran an anti-harassment awareness campaign with the slogan “Ma jupe n’est pas une invitation” (My skirt is not an invitation). French apps have sprung up that witnesses can use to denounce inappropriate behaviour. Hundreds of thousands have rallied to #BalanceTonPorc.
Brigitte is not publicly part of that movement. Her teenage rebellion seems to have involved the frisson of wearing a mini-skirt rather than upturning underlying social expectations. Though she has rebelled against age conventions, French people seem to relate to Brigitte, a mother of three adult children and a grandmother of seven, as a maternal figure and former teacher rather than a pioneering feminist. Her declared passion for the country’s great writers – her favourites include Flaubert, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Maupassant – helps to fill out the two-dimensional part she sometimes seems obliged to play. Every day she receives around 200 letters or emails – far more than her predecessors – and they often consist of appeals for help or advice, many relating to education or children’s welfare. Most weeks Brigitte visits a classroom, a hospital ward or a welfare centre, the vast majority of these trips without reporters in tow.
The next four years, under the youngest president France has known in modern times, will be judged on what Emmanuel achieves. But his ability to carry the country with him through difficult times will also depend on the way he embodies the presidency and handles the grandiose “Jupiterian” style he has sought to impose. In this respect, Brigitte Macron will have to navigate a fine line between acting as public consort to a monarchical-style president, and avoiding any sense of entitlement as an unelected spouse that angers voters. She has little choice, as she says, but to continue to be both there and not there.