If her husband becomes France’s next president, Brigitte Macron will be the most unusual first lady the country has ever seen.
While French first ladies have a checkered history — making headlines for excessive spending, extra-marital affairs, treason and even murder — they’ve never been as central a figure in the formative years of their husbands’ lives as Brigitte has been for front-runner Emmanuel Macron.
Brigitte Macron, who is 24 years older than the candidate, has been his guide and coach since he was 15, and is playing an active role in his campaign, advising him on speeches and effectively helping set his agenda.
“Emmanuel Macron wouldn’t have been able to embark on this adventure without her,” said Marc Ferracci, a campaign adviser and a witness at the couple’s 2007 wedding. “Her presence is essential for him.”
Multiple polls show Macron is a strong favourite to beat National Front’s Marine Le Pen with a large margin in the decisive round of the French election.
“If I’m elected — no, sorry, when we are elected — she will be there, with a role, and a place,” the 39-year-old candidate said of Brigitte, 63, on March 8 during a speech in Paris. “I owe her a lot, she helped make me who I am.”
Many of the wives of French leaders have found a place in the history books: Queen Marie-Antoinette’s lavish spending contributed to the fall of the French monarchy in the late 18th century and Empress Josephine was divorced because she couldn’t give Napoleon an heir. In 1914, Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux’s wife Henriette killed the editor of the newspaper Le Figaro because he was a political threat to her husband.
In the 1980s and 1990s, while Socialist president Francois Mitterrand led a double life with the mother of his illegitmate daughter Mazarine, his wife Danielle had a love life of her own. Bernadette Chirac suggested to a biographer that she silently put up with the many infidelities of her husband Jacques, while Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia left him for her lover just six months after he took office in 2007. In 2014, President Francois Hollande’s partner Valerie Trierweiler published a bitter tell-all book on him after his liaison with actress Julie Gayet became public.
For Macron and his wife, the challenge if he takes office in May will be to not let their unusual personal history — the couple’s age difference is the same as Donald and Melania Trump, only in reverse — become a distraction. The next French president enters a post-Brexit-vote, post-Trump-election world facing a domestic economy that has made an anemic recovery with an unemployment rate still at 10 percent.
An outspoken 5-foot-4 inch former high school French literature and Latin teacher, Brigitte comes from a bourgeois family, named Trogneux, renowned for its chocolate factory in the Northern French town of Amiens. She was a drama coach at the private Jesuit school in the town in 1992 when she met 15-year-old Macron. He acted in her theater pieces, with their association slowly developing into a romance that pushed her to divorce her husband and the father of her three children.
Even after more than a decade-long marriage, their extraordinary union raises eyebrows and is bound to draw attention if and when the Elysee palace spotlights are turned on them.
Aware that they are breaking the codes of bourgeois and conservative France, the independent candidate and his partner of more than 20 years have been laying the groundwork to preempt any potential personal attacks.
“They’re an atypical couple and this strengthens their relationship,” said Ferracci.
To get ahead of the story, they’ve opened the door to their lives, even being on the cover of glossy magazines like the biggest-circulation weekly Paris Match, with pictures in bathing suits during a seaside vacation. The April issue of British Vogue marvels at Madame Macron’s look: “a deep tan, a peroxide-to-honey blonde hairdo, an expensive designer handbag and car-to-carpet heels.”
Macron has twice addressed rumors about his alleged homosexuality, raising the issue unprompted at a political rally and dismissing it with a joke about needing a hologram to run a double life. He also hasn’t been afraid to tackle the student-who-married-his-teacher question head on.
“We don’t have a classic family, that’s an undeniable reality,” he said during a political meeting, with Brigitte at his side in her now-trademark denim jacket and skinny black trousers. “There is no less love in our family.”
One recent friendship may help the couple avert bad publicity. Michele Marchand — nicknamed Mimi — the head of Bestimage, one of the country’s most powerful paparazzi photo agencies, has become a supporter.
“They are genuine and normal people, that’s all I can say,” Marchand said in an interview.
People who have worked closely with Macron say Brigitte is one of the few people he trusts. Alexis Kohler, Macron’s chief of staff when he was economy minister in Hollande’s government, recalls how engaged she was in his role.
“She attended agenda meetings when he was a minister, ” he said. “She is a woman who’s involved in the life of her husband.”
Brigitte has been closely choreographing his campaign. A France3 TV documentary shows him preparing for a key speech only to have her jump up from her seat.
“Your voice drops at the point where you say ‘for,”‘ she says. “Raise your voice so we know what you are talking about. ” In another report, Macron is asked about her presence at a meeting. “Her opinion matters to me,” he says. She pipes up to say she is the “president of his fan club.”
Brigitte cites Montaigne to explain their relationship. “We rub and polish each other’s brains,” she said in a 2015 Canal Plus TV program, echoing the French Renaissance philosopher’s words. The couple thrives on intellectual confrontation and shares a passion for literature, people who know them say.
Brigitte Macron declined to be interviewed by Bloomberg.
Like President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who in the 1970s made his wife Anne-Aymone a key figure in his presidential life, Macron has pledged that if he’s elected, his wife will have an official status — a first for France — “but without a salary.” It’s a plan Brigitte backs.
“I’ve been involved in everything at his side for 20 years,” Brigitte told reporters in October during a meeting in Strasbourg. “You always seem surprised that spouses are beside their husbands. It’s time for things to evolve. That’s where we belong.”
Bloomberg’s Ben Sills contributed.