PARIS — If France’s president-elect has broken every rule in the political playbook, consider Brigitte Macron, the country’s next first lady.
She met her future husband, Emmanuel, when he was 15 and she was his 39-year-old drama teacher, married with three children. She and his parents at first tried to discourage him from pursuing her, and she has said they did not have a “carnal” relationship when he was in high school, but he eventually won her over.
By all accounts, she was present at every stage of his political evolution, coaching him on his speeches and public demeanor, and she is the one he turns to for an unsparing critique. He treats her as an equal partner and says she will define her future role.
France being France, this unusual couple is already stirring a lively and erudite debate about sexism, ageism, masculinity, contemporary marriage, political stagecraft and what a modern French first lady should actually be.
“It’s like a breath of fresh air in this country,” said Natacha Henry, a writer on gender issues. “I think he won because he didn’t do any kind of macho performance, and that’s what we need. If she’s done that for him, great.”
Some women see the Macrons as breaking with a pattern of powerful men adorning themselves with younger women; others say French history is replete with examples of younger men seeking out older women, from Henri II’s affair with Diane de Poitiers in the 16th century on.
To some, Mr. Macron, 39, is a welcome antidote to past hypermasculine French politicians, and he surrounds himself with strong female advisers and models an egalitarian marriage. Others have mocked him as being under the thumb of a mother figure and even accused him of a gay affair, which he was driven to publicly deny.
The candidate he defeated, Marine Le Pen, could not resist a dig at the marriage during their final debate: “I can see you want to play this teacher and pupil game with me, but it’s not really my thing.”
In the days after the election, social media posts went viral criticizing the way the couple have sometimes been portrayed in the press: she as a predatory “cougar” and he as a “boy toy”; Ms. Macron, 64, has been called everything from a grandmother making his tea to a “cagole,” a French term for a bimbo. If the ages were reversed, her defenders pointed out, no one would have blinked an eye.
“Madame Macron’s age is a feminist issue here,” Ms. Henry said. “I was at the hairdresser’s at a very small town in Orléans the day he was appointed minister of economy, and all the ladies were so happy she was so much older than him. We’re so fed up with these older guys with young actresses.”
The Macrons both grew up in the northern city of Amiens, Brigitte Macron as the sixth child of a family whose chocolate business was a local institution founded in 1872. She married a banker in 1974 when she was 21, had two daughters and a son, and taught French, Latin and drama in high school.
Like many schoolboys, Emmanuel Macron developed a crush on his teacher. Ms. Macron, during an interview she gave in 2016 to Paris Match magazine, described falling in love: “I felt that I was slipping, too,” she said. “I then asked him to go to Paris” to finish his education, and his parents were also eager to separate them.
While the age of sexual consent in France is 15, it is illegal for teachers to have sex with students under the age of 18; Ms. Macron told the authors of a book about the couple that they did not consummate the relationship while he was in high school. She declined a request for an interview.
In a documentary aired this week on French television, she said he had called her every day and had gradually worn down her resistance. “He assured me that he would return,” she told Paris Match. “At the age of 17, Emmanuel told me, ‘Whatever you do, I will marry you.’ Love took everything in its path and led me to divorce.”
They married in 2007, a year after she formally divorced. A video clip of their wedding shows him thanking her children for accepting him; her daughters were active in his campaign, and the documentary shows him hunting for Easter eggs with his seven stepgrandchildren.
Anne-Élisabeth Moutet, an analyst of French politics and culture, notes that the presentation of the Macron marriage, including Ms. Macron’s interviews, has been carefully staged to try to get out ahead of what might otherwise have been seen as a liability.
In this, she said, they have had the canny advice of Michèle Marchand, known as Mimi, one of France’s best-known celebrity handlers and the owner of a photo agency, who was often photographed at their side during the campaign.
- Published in World