BBC News

Brigitte Macron: Should France have an official 'first lady'?

Published
image copyrightGetty Images
image captionBrigitte Macron is said to receive about 150 letters a week

Brigitte Macron, the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron, should not be given the official status of first lady, according to more than 200,000 people who have signed an online petition.

"There is no reason why the wife of the head of state should get a budget from public funds," wrote its creator Thierry Paul Valette, an artist and equality campaigner.

A charter that codifies her role is now in preparation, according to the French media.

The French constitution gives no official status to a president's spouse, although they are typically allocated an office in the Elysée Palace, an assistant or two, and security guards.

They are also expected to accompany their partner at official engagements and often become involved in charity work.

Macron wants a "defined" role

In a TV interview during the campaign, he said that, if elected, he would want the role of first lady to be "defined".

"She [Brigitte Macron] will have a say on what she wants to be," he told TF1 in April, "I want to get out of French hypocrisy... When a person lives with you, she must have a role and be recognised in this role."

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionEmmanuel and Brigitte posing for photographs during the presidential campaign

He then insisted she would not be paid by the taxpayer.

Nonetheless, "hypocrisy" is exactly what his critics are shouting.

The nepotism debate

During his campaign, Mr Macron vowed to stamp out nepotism.

His conservative rival, François Fillon, had been embroiled in a scandal over payments to his wife, which is thought to have cost him the presidency. She was allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of euros for little or no work.

In response to the outcry, Mr Macron said he would ban politicians from employing relatives.

image copyrightAFP/ Getty Images
image captionBrigitte Macron welcomed pop star and charity founder Rihanna to the Elysee Palace in July

"Do as I say, not as I do," tweeted French politician Thierry Mariani last month. An ally of Mr Fillon, he linked to an article about speculation over Mrs Macron receiving official status and a budget.

Brigitte is 'omnipresent'

Brigitte Macron is certainly getting a lot of attention, in her homeland and worldwide.

French newspaper Libération called her "omnipresent". "The French elected a man, but it is a certainly a couple that lives in the Elysée," wrote Voici magazine.

"Brigitte! Brigitte! Brigitte!", shouted the crowd when she took the stage after her husband was elected in May. Brigitte T-shirts have featured in fashion magazines. ("Our new fashion crush", said Elle magazine.)

But she has also been targeted by abuse, often related to the 24-year age gap between her and her younger husband.

media captionThe US president told Brigitte Macron she was "in good shape"

In his petition, Mr Valette made clear the criticism was not personal. "We fiercely denounce all sexist attacks against Brigitte Macron and we do not question her skills," he wrote.

What would formalising the role actually achieve?

The unofficial first lady receives about 150 letters a week, according to French media. New staff could help her deal with the post.

There are no known plans to give her a salary, but she could get extra money for employees and expenses. One argument is that this creates jobs.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIn the US, the Obamas were often referred to as the "first family"

She told Vanity Fair magazine she wanted to use her husband's presidency to "change the lives of disabled people and their families".

Meanwhile, President Macron's popularity has fallen (only 36% of people are satisfied, according to recent poll), leading some critics to speculate that he may be trying to boost his image via his wife.

Others have accused the couple of copying the US model, specifically looking to Michelle Obama, who played a very active role during her husband's time in the White House.

However, the US role of first lady is also unofficial.

What has changed?

"This is pointless as it is nothing new," political analyst Olivier Rouquan told RMC radio. He claims that Mrs Macron has no higher profile than any of her predecessors. He cited Yvonne de Gaulle and Claude Pompidou, as wives that also had a big public image.

"I do not understand how one could institutionalise the status of first lady. It has no democratic meaning," he said. "We do not elect a presidential couple."

Her immediate predecessor certainly had a very different profile. Journalist Valérie Trierweiler was never married to President François Hollande. Their relationship began as an affair, they split up while he was still in office and she later wrote a kiss-and-tell memoir.

image copyrightAFP / Getty Images
image captionThe relationship between former French President Francois Hollande and his partner Valerie Trierweiler soured

And before that, President Nicolas Sarkozy had two consecutive first ladies while in office.

He and his wife Cecilia divorced soon after he took office. He then met and married singer Carla Bruni, who was swiftly rated as one of the 50 most powerful women in the world, according to Forbes magazine. (It was 2010, and Michelle Obama was number one.)

The Macrons have been together for more than 20 years and married for 10.

However, as the petition says, "We do not know who will be the next president..."

And what happens if the next president is a woman? Is France ready for its first official "first man"?

Related Topics

  • Emmanuel Macron
  • France

More on this story

  • French election 2017: Meet Brigitte Macron, the new first lady

  • Macron's wife 'in such good shape' - Donald Trump