Brigitte Macron's Public Role Expands But Ageism Debate Still Prevails
French first lady Brigitte Macron has actively dived into her public role since the election victory of her spouse, French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron confirmed on Nov. 1 that she would attend the baptism of the twin Chinese pandas bequeathed to ZooParc de Beauval in December, after accepting the position of becoming their godmother in August. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein’s sexual allegations, Macron called on women to speak out about sexual abuse at a one-woman play that discussed rape on Oct. 17.
“That’s enough. I think that all this (harassment) must stop very quickly. Freeing up speech is the best thing that could happen,” she stated.
While her spouse visited French Guiana, Macron visited disabled children in Nantes on Oct. 27, talking to their parents about policy initiatives, and promising to relay her experience “accurately” to the president. These initiatives represent the first lady’s expanse of public power inscribed specifically into an Elysee “transparency charter” on Aug. 21 that detailed the budget and administration of her role.
The charter, a first for codifying French first ladies’ duties, said Macron wouldn’t get a salary, and was expected to represent France “at all international summits”, “respond to requests of international or French visits” and to “maintain a continuous relationship with officials in the “disability, education, health, culture, child protection and gender equality divisions.”
Although the charter doesn’t specifically pronounce Macron as the first lady, it alerts the French and international public that she will play a larger social, cultural and political role in her spouse’s presidency than her predecessors.
While former presidents Francois Hollande’s ex-partner Valerie Trierweiler and Nicolas Sarkozy’s spouse Carla Bruni attended state dinners and international summits, neither had a charter that officialized their duties, or justified their powers. The broad extent of power given to Macron clashes deeply with the often critical perspective of Macron’s age in relation to her spouse’s. Why is Macron revered for her public role but ridiculed for her age?
During Emmanuel Macron’s presidential campaign, the couple’s unique love story was mocked by international media in different ways, with many centered around the fact that Macron was older than her spouse.
Taiwanese news site, Tomonews released a video, mocking Brigitte’s 24-year difference with her husband by depicting her as an old woman, carrying a medical walker during the couple’s wedding on April 26. The video also ridiculed the way the couple fell in love : Brigitte taught Macron drama in high school as his teacher, and he fell in love with her at 17 years old.
German tabloid Bild asked the question: “She is 24 years older. How does this marriage work?” on April 27. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a German conservative newspaper, pitched the age difference and love story as a “strategy” for the campaign, noting that it drew younger votes in, and called Macron a “more sympathetic version of Jane Fonda.”
As these sites exaggerated their surprise at Macron’s age, other sites such as the Guardian and GQ pushed back against criticism. The Guardian said the chaos showed “ageism and sexism are still alive and kicking.” GQ headlined their article, “Emmanuel Macron’s wife Brigitte Trogneux is no cougar.” The drama surrounding Macron’s age even reached a level where the president was accused of being a closeted gay, and publically lambasted it on May 15.
“If I had been 20 years older than my wife, nobody would have thought for a single second that I couldn’t be [an intimate partner],” Macron said.
The back-and-forth reporting between multiple media outlets revealed the embedded, underlying sense of ageism in society, overall. However, this ageism is tied to a bigger data problem : there are more relationships where the men are older, and that is the norm in relationships with significant age-gaps. According to INSEE, there has been a jump in couples like this from 10 percent in 1960s to 16 percent in 2012. Yet, 56 percent of these couples had a man who was significantly older, as opposed to 14 percent of these couples having a men significantly younger.
“The age difference is a sign of a man’s superiority, we could say it’s a clue of the male domination in all societies,” said sociologist, Francois de Singly in Le Monde.
When one considers de Singly’s commentary and INSEE’s numbers against former French presidents’ spouses and lives, it becomes more obvious that Macron’s age is a double-edged sword of ageism and fascination.
When Sarkozy courted and married third wife, supermodel Carla Bruni, the French were “divided over” the way Sarkozy thrust his relationship with Bruni into the public spotlight just after his split with former wife Cecilia Sarkozy, and that the relationship didn’t matter due to the separation of public and private spheres in France. Their 13-year age difference was of little to no importance. Bruni released songs, describing her former relationships with 30 lovers, and the French didn’t know if they liked the showiness of Sarkozy-Bruni and if the relationship would last.
Bruni is now married to Sarkozy, has a 6-year-old daughter with him, but held a “Madame’s Wing” at the Elysee, similarly to Macron’s transparency charter, while weathering a hurricane of tabloids on the couple’s extramarital affairs. Newspapers focused on Bruni’s lovers and Sarkozy’s Playboy persona. Their age difference was just a small detail in their larger love story.
Francois Hollande created a similar level of chaos during his time at office after leaving his partner, Valerie Trierweiler for a significantly younger partner, actress Julie Gayet who was 18 years his junior. Trierweiler was admitted to the hospital upon news of the affair being splashed across French tabloid Closer in January 2014. Just days later, the Daily Beast noted that Hollande announced their separation officially, and Trierweiler moved out of Elysee.
While Sarkozy and Hollande’s love lives reveal that there isn’t a single, typical, traditional love story in the Elysee, both their love stories involve men dating significantly younger women. Tabloids didn’t exaggerate Sarkozy and Hollande’s age the way they do with Macron’s, but focus on Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s extramarital affairs and multiple partners instead. In stark contrast, the media has zoned in on the Macrons’ unique relationship, and remain enraptured with the story of how a teacher and her pupil fell in love, and have remained in love.
“The one requirement is that a French politician’s love life should be sincere, especially if it’s part of his public persona...The implication is that if his love story isn’t real, his plans for the country lack substance, too,” said writer, Pamela Druckerman in the New York Times.
Druckerman’s comment bears weight here : The Macrons’ have outwardly professed their love for one another throughout the campaign, and Brigitte’s transparency charter and the president's wish to create an official first lady position for her only heighten the intensity of their love story. In a deeper way, it has also heightened France’s status globally as the media key into Macron’s every move.
“Americans have become used to this unusual couple and I have noticed quite a few positive pieces on her in the media. People here, like in France, seem to like her assertiveness and natural class,” said L’Obs correspondent, Phil Boulet-Gercourt.
Although the age gap may remain insignificant to Macron herself, it plays a dualistic role in the fame surrounding the first lady. Brigitte Macron has raised eyebrows for her “ageless style” but others have called her a “menopausal Barbie.” The fascination is tied intricately with ageism, and it would be difficult to separate either unless misogyny is removed from society.
“So, what has been said over the last 20 years, it's insignificant. Of course, we have breakfast together—me and my wrinkles, him with his youth—but it's like that,” said Brigitte Macron.
As long as the age gap remains insignificant to Macron in relation to her public role and captivating to the media, she easily can get her policies and ideas to the public forefront.