Around the world and throughout history, the French have a reputation for love. French lovers, French kisses, French romance. Is romance really at the heart of every French coupling? And just how long does the steamy passion last? INSPIRELLE takes a look at some of France’s iconic couples in search of the meaning of l’amour in their relationship.
Marie Antoinette & Louis XVI
Royal marriages throughout French history were more about convenience than love, yet who hasn’t heard of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI? The 14-year old Austrian Archduchess, Maria Antonia, was married off to the stodgy and serious Louis-August on May 16, 1770, to reinforce a political alliance between the two countries. Although the young king was only one year older than his teenage bride, he was more interested in his collection of clocks and padlocks than his virgin wife. Marie Antoinette patiently waited for her time with her husband and went on to bear him four children. Despite her capricious tastes and appetite for fun, Marie Antoinette stood by her man throughout their marriage to their final days in the French revolution and walked to the guillotine with her head held high in 1793.
Josephine & Napoleon Bonaparte
Following the French Revolution, Napoleon Bonaparte dominated the scene with his wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais, ultimately making her the first Empress of France. Their passionate love affair began when Josephine became Napoleon’s mistress in 1795. French society frowned on the General’s marriage to a widowed mother of two children six years his senior but Napoleon was besotted. Despite the emperor’s many paramours in his life, Josephine was the love of his life. The proof? His love letters to her, many of which still exist, during their turbulent relationship, which reveal how much he needed her. Unfortunately, Josephine couldn’t bear him children so the Emperor was forced to divorce her to find another partner who could bear him an heir.
Even after their separation, Napoleon insisted Josephine retain the title of Empress. “It is my will that she retain the rank and title of Empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend.”
Yvonne & Charles De Gaulle
When Yvonne Anne Marie Vendrouxh met the handsome Captain Charles de Gaulle in 1920, she told her family “it was him or no one”. The young couple wedded on April 27, 1921, and their lifelong marriage was marked by significant historical events. Yvonne supported her husband’s decision to challenge Petain’s cohabitation with the Nazis during World War 2, which forced the couple into exile in London, England where the General built up the French Resistance Army to later liberate France. Together, they survived assassination attempts and endured the turbulent change of Republican governments. The First Lady is said to have stated, “The presidency is temporary, but the family is permanent.” Solid as a rock, Yvonne’s courage and dedication matched that of her famous husband; she founded a charity helping children with disabilities after her youngest child, born with Down syndrome, died at an early age.
Simone De Beauvoir & Jean Paul Sartre
Sparks explode when you put together one of France’s most famous French philosophers with a prolific French intellectual feminist and writer. Simone de Beauvoir had a lifelong open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Their idyll began in 1929 and, shortly after, Sartre asked her to marry him. They never did, nor did they ever set up a joint household. De Beauvoir explained much later in life that “marriage was impossible”. Instead, they chose to be partners in a personal and creative relationship that spanned 51 years. Furthermore, de Beauvoir never had children, which allowed her time to earn an advanced academic degree, to join political causes, to travel, to write, to teach and to have lovers (both male and female). Even when other paramours were involved, de Beauvoir and Sartre remained very close and always read each other’s work. Their close relationship influenced many of their writings such as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and de Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay.
Edith Piaf & Marcel Cerdan
How could we not include the renowned French cabaret singer with the one man who knew how to make the “little sparrow” happy? Edith Piaf met the powerful (and married), Marcel Cerdan, in the summer of 1948. Her love affair with the world-champion boxer lasted just over a year before he perished in a plane crash in 1949. Even though Edith was married twice in her life and also experienced many dalliances, her love for Marcel was stronger than anything she had ever felt. The songstress composed one of her most famous songs, Hymne à l’amour, for Cerdan. (Coincidentally, Edith had a daughter in 1933 whom she named, Marcelle.)
Brigitte Bardot & Roger Vadim
As Brigitte Bardot stepped into starlight as a model in the early 1950s, an ambitious, aspiring filmmaker, Roger Vadim, spotted the young bombshell. He immediately recognized her potential star power and showed her work to a friend who got Bardot her first shot in the cinema industry. This enabled the 21-year-old Vadim to begin a relationship with the sensual 14-year-old much to the rage of her protective and strict father. As soon as Bardot turned 18 years old, they married in 1952. Vadim molded his young wife into a famous sex symbol by focusing on her raw beauty and sensuality. He directed her in her first major film, “And God Created Women”, catapulting Bardot into an overnight sensation at the box office. He was there for her as she starred in over 17 films between 1952-1956. Although the couple divorced in 1957, and both went on to remarry several times, they remained close and influenced each other’s later work.
Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin
“Je t’aime… Moi non plus” is a notoriously famous French song that sums up the turbulent relationship between the iconic French songwriter and the waif-like British actress. It was during the late 1960s, when Serge Gainsbourg fell hard for Jane Birkin on the movie set of the film Slogan. Gainsbourg and Birkin released the duet in 1969 and caused a furor for its salacious lyrics with a backing of ecstatic female moaning, climaxing in an apparent orgasm at the song’s finale. Their much-publicized relationship was as much part of the French culture as was their album debut in 1969. Together they had a daughter, Charlotte, in 1971, who today is also a singer and actress. Their rocky love story lasted over a decade, but Birkin left Gainsbourg in 1980 when she was pregnant with Jacques Doillon’s daughter (Lou Doillon).
Arielle Dombasle & Bernard Henry Levy
Splashed across the French People magazine pages for the past two decades are photos of “the beauty and the brain”. Arielle Dombasle, femme fatale, singer, and actress was sizzling on the stage when she first met Bernard Henry Levy, the leading hot man in his generation of new French Philosophers and intellectuals. They began their relationship as lovers, married in the south of France in 1993, and appeared on each other’s arms at the opening of each of their films, plays, book signings and high society events. BHL, as he is commonly known as in France, is rumored to have a long-standing affair with British socialite and heiress, Daphne Guinness, but both Arielle and BHL ignore the wagging tongues and make a point of declaring their love for one another in the French press at every opportunity.
Bernadette & Jacques Chirac
Bernadette Thérèse Marie Chodron de Courcel met her husband, the dashing Jacques Chirac, while they were both in university studying at the prestigious Paris Institute of Political Studies, or Sciences Po. She stood by her man as he rose through the conservative political ranks serving as Prime Minister twice, Mayor of Paris for 18 years, and then President of the French Republic for two terms. Bernadette was initially mocked by the French press as being a frumpy First Lady, always nervously clutching an old-fashioned handbag. But, she was far from weak. She put up with her husband’s years of philandering, helped him win his presidential election, and forged her own career in politics, as an elected official of Corrèze, the couple’s home constituency. During their busy times as politicians, the couple raised two daughters and adopted a daughter from Vietnam. Today, the former President suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and is cared for by his devoted wife of 60 years, who continues to be active in politics.
Nicolas Sarkozy was freshly divorced at the start of his French Presidency and still smarting from his former wife’s public departure when he met the beguiling top model, Carla Bruni, at a Parisian dinner party in 2007. A man so sure of himself, he asked Carla to marry him only a few months after their first date. No one was surprised when the model-turned-songstress accepted his proposal and became France’s most beautiful First Lady but many skeptics did not expect the marriage to last longer than Sarkozy’s presidential term. Shame on those who have little faith! Carla gave Nicolas Sarkozy a beautiful daughter, remained steadfastly by his side when he lost the presidency to Francois Hollande in 2012 and supported his bid to run again in the Republican presidential primary in 2016. He was eliminated in the first round of voting but Carla is still married to Sarkozy who has removed himself from French politics.
Valerie Trierweiler, Francois Hollande & Julie Gayet
“Love and politics” make a couple of their own in French culture. First, it was the newly-elected President, Francois Hollande, who brought Valerie Trierweiler with him to the Élysée Palace to be “First Girlfriend”, as the press liked to call her because they were not married. Then, the French President was outed by the paparazzi photographers who caught him on a motorcycle with his security guard speeding off to a secret love nest to meet his mistress, the actress Julie Gayet.
While liaisons of past presidents were once a top-secret affair, this one was splashed across seven tabloid pages causing the mercurial Trierweiler to have a very public nuclear meltdown. The President, in a terse 18-word public announcement, ceremoniously dumped her so she took her revenge in a tell-all book about their relationship. Francois Hollande survived the scandal and continued his life pretending to live alone to devote all his time to serve the French people, but these days, it’s no secret the French president is still very much in love with his actress, Julie Gayet.
Brigitte & Emmanuel Macron
« Brigitte is me and I am her. »
– President Emmanuel Macron
Emmanuel Macron was a brilliant and cultivated student when he signed up for his teacher’s after-school theatre workshop in 1994. He was 17 years old and his mentor, Brigitte Trogneux, was 41. Despite a 24-year age difference, the two bonded intellectually and emotionally. Alarmed by the unlikely romance, the Macron family sent the teenager away from Brigitte to pursue his studies elsewhere but the two star-crossed lovers never lost contact. By the time he was 27 and a successful banker, Brigitte could resist him no more. She left her marriage and three children to marry the love of her life. Together, they would form the independent political party En Marche! Brigitte Macron worked unrelentingly alongside to her husband to help him become France’s youngest President in 2017.
Beside every great man is a woman.
“On pardonne tant que l’on aime” (Where there is love there is forgiveness) – Rochefoucauld