In high silly season, France debates official status for Brigitte Macron
President may be torn between promise to define a role for his wife and public opinion
Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron: Ms Macron is waiting for her situation to be clarified, as her husband promised during his presidential campaign. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters
Brigitte Macron has kept a low profile since her husband Emmanuel’s inauguration on May 14th last. On Bastille Day, Donald Trump marvelled that Ms Macron, who is 64 years old, was “in such good shape”.
There was a fleeting image of her in tight jeans and stiletto heels, greeting the pop singer Rihanna on the steps of the Élysée Palace last weekend. Otherwise, she has hardly been seen in public.
Ms Macron is waiting for her situation to be clarified, as her husband promised during his campaign. In March, he said Brigitte “will have the role she’s always had . . . She has always accompanied me, because she’s the balance in my life; that’s how we function.”
After his election, Macron set up a working group to study the question. His wife would not, he stressed, be paid a salary.
In the meantime, the National Assembly debated a law on “the moralisation of political life”, the final version of which is to be voted on Wednesday. The law bans parliamentarians from hiring family members.
Last week, Ugo Bernalicis, a deputy from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left France Unbowed party, proposed a failed amendment to the morality law that would have prevented the partners of presidents, prime ministers or parliamentarians from using state funds.
At the same time, a virtually unknown, self-described and self-promoting actor, painter and author called Thierry Paul Valette launched a petition on the Change.org website against official status for the French first lady.
By Tuesday afternoon, Valette’s petition had garnered 284,402 signatures.
Valette appears to be close to France Unbowed. A source at the Élysée expressed “surprise at the identity of the person who launched [the petition] and presents himself as an artist, but who is also a political opponent”.
Valette’s petition strikes a Mélenchon-like tone, saying that “the status of workers, of abandoned old-age pensioners, students hurt by the fall in housing allowance” is more important than that of Ms Macron.
Emmanuel Macron may be torn between his promise to define a role for his wife and public opinion. He had criticised what he called “French hypocrisy” and “ambiguity” and said one should write a “job description” for the first spouse.
On Monday evening, the Élysée said it would establish a “charter of transparency” regarding Ms Macron’s position. “No change in the constitution, no new funding, no salary for Brigitte Macron,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner, tweeted. “Stop the hypocrisy!”
On Tuesday, the tone changed somewhat. The Élysée vaguely promised a “communication” about Ms Macron’s role in late August or early September. Sources said the number of her staff, with the exception of her security detail, will be revealed, but not a budget.
The state auditor reported in 2015 that the first lady’s office, cabinet and protection cost €450,000 annually.
A YouGov poll for the French edition of the Huffington Post published on May 10th showed that while 49 per cent of respondents had a positive image of Brigitte Macron, 68 per cent opposed “the creation of an official status of first lady with means allocated for the post”.
Mr Macron is regularly criticised for what are perceived as his American ways. The very concept of a first lady is American, critics say, noting that the husbands of chancellor Angela Merkel and prime minister Theresa May are almost never seen.
The debate seems absurd when one considers that French first ladies have always been public figures.
Charles de Gaulle’s wife was known to all as “Tante Yvonne”. Claude Pompidou collected designer clothes and contemporary art and called the Élysée “the house of unhappiness”. Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing was the first president’s wife to demand her own office in the Élysée. Danielle Mitterrand, known as “the militant”, campaigned for oppressed peoples, particularly Kurds, from the Fondation France Libertés she set up at the Élysée.
Cécilia Sarkozy obtained the liberation of five Bulgarian nurses and a doctor who had been condemned to death in Libya. Carla Bruni Sarkozy continued her singing career and campaigned for access to education. François Hollande made Valérie Trierweiler the “first girlfriend”, then kept her replacement, actor Julie Gayet, hidden from public view.
Ms Macron, a former teacher, wants to work to “integrate differences in society”, including handicaps and illness.