If you think it was only politics that the French got right in their recent presidential election, look deeper. The campaign revealed a lot about French attitudes not only toward politics but also love, sex, ageism and modern marriage. Consider how the French press covered and the public responded to the story of Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. The youngest president in modern French history met his future wife when he was 15 and she was his 39-year-old drama teacher. Brigitte Macron, now 64, was married at the time with three children.
Emmanuel pursued her despite discouragement from both his parents and Brigitte, and eventually he won her over. Brigitte has said they did not have a “carnal” relationship while Emmanuel was in high school and that they did not consummate their romance during those years. It is illegal for teachers to have sex with students under the age of 18 although the age of sexual consent in France is 15.
She asked him to go to Paris to finish his education, and he called her every day. “Love took everything in its path and led me to divorce,” Brigitte has said in a television documentary. Her first marriage formally ended in 2006, and they were married a year later.
The French campaign for president was notable for a lack of prurience and sexism in press coverage of the Macrons. Perhaps that is not surprising, considering the French reluctance to pass moral judgment on people’s love lives. In a country with a strong respect for privacy, intimacy is considered NOYB—none of your business.
Public attention focused, instead, on her influence in his career and the intense cooperation between wife and husband that is new in French politics. As a principal adviser and coach who has been important in every step of his political evolution, she offers unsparing assessments of his speeches and public demeanor.
“It is together that this atypical couple scaled the steps of power. Never has the wife of a candidate been as present in a presidential campaign”, as Le Monde said. Others in the press were less sanguine. He has been portrayed as a boy toy and she as a predatory cougar, bimbo and grandmotherly presence making his tea. Defenders say the gap would have aroused little comment if their ages were reversed. They point out that the Macrons’ age difference is about the same as that between President Donald Trump as his wife, Melania.
Don’t cast Brigitte Macron in the role of Professor Henry Higgins transforming Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, defenders say. Her contribution is serving as a sounding board on policies he frames, and she speaks up only on issues she knows well. Issues such as education, culture and women’s rights may be the ones she adopts as France’s first lady.
“She will have a say in what she wants to be. She will have a presence, a voice, a look. She will have it privately by my side as she always has. But she will have a public role because that’s how it goes,” promised Emmanuel Macron in a television interview shortly before the presidential runoff.
Read more: France’s First Lady, a Confidante and Coach, May Break the Mold