Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a PhD in renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
French President Emmanuel Macron and the people of France would like to announce that their honeymoon is over. Since his recent election victory, Macron’s approval numbers have dropped by 10 percentage points.
French citizens accuse him of authoritarianism – it’s never a good idea to call yourself a “Jupiterian head of state” – and he has publicly fallen out with the head of his armed forces, who resigned after a row over defense spending. But in one relationship, Macron’s honeymoon phase is still going strong. Even after 20 years of marriage, the French President seems devoted to his wife Brigitte. For the French people, that, too, has become a problem.
It emerged this week that he would like his wife to hold a title akin to “first lady” and that aides are said to be drawing up an official codification of her role and recruiting staff. If you’re an American, you might not see this as anything out of the ordinary. But European nations generally don’t buy into the concept of a first lady – let alone a first family. Brigitte Macron would be breaking significantly with French tradition by hiring staff on the taxpayer dime (or taxpayer euro).
European arguments against a “first spouse” generally point out that the election of a politician is based on policies. There is no election for their spouse. So in an effort to deny her the role of “première dame” a petition has, at the time of writing, garnered 280,000 signatures.
Macron’s relationship with his wife is unusual. When they met, he was a teenager and she was his teacher – 24 years his senior and the mother of three children. But their relationship has stood the test of time and is now an object of fascination in French politics.
Macho pundits congratulate Macron as if an adolescent hero, to be saluted for bedding his teacher. Others mutter suspiciously about the domineering influence of an older woman.
The founder of this week’s petition, comedian-activist Thierry Paul Valette, has repudiated personal attacks on Madame Macron herself. But the whiff of personal dislike still emanates from many of her critics on social media. Who is this woman, and why does she have such a hold over the Elysee’s young prince?
Naturally, the French don’t merely object to a first lady because they dislike Brigitte Macron. There’s a deeper cultural difference here between American and French approaches.
In American presidential elections, “character” is always a hot topic of discussion. A man’s choice of wife (or rarely, a woman’s choice of husband) is seen as reasonable evidence of character. Family values – the ability to keep your wife smiling at your side and shepherding the children – are prized.
Europeans, and especially the French, tend to be more skeptical about their leaders’ personal lives. You can’t be sure who your leader is really building a family with – President Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter were famously photographed next to his wife at his funeral – but you know what he said about EU tax law when grilled on prime-time TV.
To most of us, bringing in an adviser because they managed to put a ring on your finger looks as corrupt as appointing a campaign donor to the cabinet. Why should a woman who has never had to defend deficit plans in a public debate be given a place at top-level meetings?
In the US, of course, the first lady doesn’t traditionally have power over policy. Edith Roosevelt, the first presidential spouse to hire a member of staff from federal funds, is credited with inventing the modern role of first lady when she appointed Isabelle Hagner as White House social secretary.
The concept of first lady evolved in an era when the role of most women was to support their husbands’ professional lives and a woman’s place in the White House was arranging the flowers. When we look at the White House, see a man reading policy papers and his wife officially required to organize the Easter Egg Roll, it feels like that traditional model is being validated on a national scale.
Is there a feminist answer to all this? Modern first ladies in America – notably Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama – have brought high-level career experience to the White House and been publicly criticized for carving out areas of policy expertise.
Could they realistically have kept out of politics completely, while continuing their own careers? The example of Cherie Booth, wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, suggests otherwise. Already a highly successful lawyer when she entered Downing Street, in 2000, she helped set up Matrix Chambers, a major law firm which frequently found itself suing the government. Unsurprisingly, she found herself heavily criticized. But like Hillary Clinton, she “wasn’t going to stay home and bake cookies.”
For all the fantasies about a “first gentleman,” the model of a first family is still based on traditional gender roles.
Neither America nor France has ever elected a female president. Germany and Britain have had female political leaders, but in neither of those countries is the head of government also the ceremonial head of state. Thus, neither the families of Angela Merkel nor Theresa May are expected to act as representatives of the nation. (When Cherie Blair was accused of seeking a public role, one Conservative MP complained “in Britain we already have a first lady – the Queen.”)
It seems that there is still no good solution for what to do with a political leader’s spouse. Even Melania Trump, one of the only Trumps who doesn’t seem to be attempting the exercise of nepotistic power, was criticized for staying too far away from the White House and shunning her “duties.”
Perhaps it is time to accept that a modern couple is often at its best as an intellectual team of equals. Or perhaps America should follow France’s lead and abolish the first lady title altogether.
Back in France, it appears now that Emmanuel Macron will not get his way. It doesn’t help the French President that he’s recently spearheaded a drive against other French officeholders employing family members as public staff. Nothing brings a politician down like hypocrisy.