Sunday May 14th 2017 Le Président Emmanuel Macron strides alone into the Élysée Palace for the handover of power. He is not accompanied by his wife, Brigitte Macron. She arrived earlier, alone too. They will meet later in the privacy of the presidential palace. This mise-en-scene, which plays out for all to see, reveals how French First Ladies are unpopular in France. Indeed, they don’t represent a model for Parisiennes and generally speaking, the French don’t identify with them. If there is media interest, the spotlight is on their private life, their relationships – unless they are part of the French political scene. But that is pretty rare.
I’m a 20-year-old French student who has already seen four French First Ladies in my lifetime: Bernadette Chirac, Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Valérie Trierweiler and Julie Gayet.
But the women who stand out for me as ideal role models are American First Ladies: Michelle Obama, particularly what she did to fight obesity; and Jackie Kennedy, who died before I was born but whose legacy is legendary.
So it got me thinking: “What is the role of the French First Lady? “
I turned to my French friends and entourage for their observations.
“To us, this is just the president’s wife” (Paloma, 20 years old)
“Her image is important. Her beauty is also important for marketing” (Christine B., 48 years old)
My 70-year-old grandma tells me about Danielle Mitterrand, Francois Mitterand’s wife, whom she remembers well. When Danielle Mitterand became French First Lady in 1981, she was noted for her remarkable intelligence, independence and her strong stances in favor of the Dalai Lama, for the Kurds of Iraq or even her fight for universal access to water. She created the organization France Libertés, fighting war and inequality all around the world. She made an impact. However, the Presidents’ wives that followed, in my young humble opinion, were less remarkable.
Bernadette Chirac became French First Lady in 1995. A woman of character, she was respected and listened to. She used her influence to unite la droite, and she didn’t hesitate to contradict her husband’s council members. Yet even though she was an elected politician, Bernadette Chirac is sadly best remembered for clutching her handbag in the shadow of her charismatic husband, President Jacques Chirac. Although she created the charitable Opération Pièces Jaunes to assist hospitalized children, which still exists today, Bernadette Chirac was seen and is remembered as being old-fashioned despite being a strong and independent woman.
Now let’s talk about Carla Bruni Sarkozy. Following a whirlwind romance, she became First Lady when she married Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, a few months into his presidency. Very different from her predecessor, she was already famous in France as a singer and supermodel. To me, she made her husband look better, but she was noticeably absent from the political scene; she was not engaged enough with the everyday people. Carla Bruni Sarkozy is best remembered for her career as a singer/composer. However, as the president’s wife, she played a key role in the rise of the image of a French First Lady. Indeed outward appearance is very important, first for the image of France all around the world, but also for the marketing of the country. No one can deny Carla Bruni represented a symbol of beauty and élégance à la française.
The First “Girlfriend” Valerie Trierweiler is infamous for her meltdown following her discovery of the affair between her partner, President François Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet. But worse, admittedly, was that the scandal was viewed by the entire world, leading to public humiliation. After that, there was no more First Lady for Francois Hollande in public.
Even if the French are seen, rightly or wrongly, as more tolerant to extramarital activity, the image of marriage and family is sacred. We can’t ignore that upholding an image is part of the presidential package.
In France, we do not attach importance to the French Lady and her role for many reasons. First, if we compare ourselves to Americans, the French do not see a spouse or family as a factor in voting for a future president. We vote for a candidate’s program or party affiliation. In the US, the family can be an advantage for the future president during their campaign.
And the French protect family life. Privacy and discretion are expected. The French president is discreet, and so the French First Lady should follow this example to preserve their image. I think there exists a kind of French reticence and prudishness, in order to preserve privacy and to avoid public scandals.
More generally, I feel we can associate this attitude with sexism. First Ladies worldwide are judged and scrutinized. So obviously the image of the First Lady in France is, unfortunately, the reflection of a problem in a modern society where women are still considered inferior to men. Even if we can note some improvement, I feel that politics is a sector where prejudices are still strong and it is hard for the president’s wife to move beyond her image: a woman there to support her dear husband who is working hard every day to save the country.
Brigitte Macron is the new French First Lady, and nobody ignores the fact that she is 20 years old older than her husband, or that she was his high school French teacher. So, of course, the media is having a field day; and public opinion is enjoying the gossip wholeheartedly. Once again, this demonstrates the bias of media and society and reminds us of the heavy burden of being a French woman in a public role. She is criticized for her age, analyzed through her outfits, investigated for revelations in her past and scrutinized for her unique love affair with Emmanuel Macron. But what about the woman’s intelligence, achievements, and her skills?
All this is too much for me.
In our modern French society, a French First Lady shouldn’t have to worry about expressing herself, sharing her opinions and demonstrating an independent streak. I hope Brigitte Macron will use her role as First Lady to exercise influence and give visibility to important causes like Danielle Mitterand did. I have taken note of her elegance, charisma, and refinement, and I anxiously await to hear her speak and see her involvement.
I don’t want the French First Lady to be a model of perfection; it would be hypocrisy and no one would believe in her. I want her to be a modern French woman.