Check out the careers of first ladies of France and you can see why no self-respecting woman would want to go anywhere near the role. State-sponsored doormat might be a better description: humiliations range from presidents routinely cheating on their premières dames, to denying them the right to speak for themselves at all.
Now Emmanuel Macron, the fresh-faced reformer who seems determined to become known as a truly radical French head of state, wants to revise all that. His wife, Brigitte Macron, refuses to take the female lead in yet another excruciating soap opera. She potentially has a strong and powerful voice, and so Macron favours formalising the office into First Lady of France.
Feminist inclinations are seemingly strong in Macron. He pushed for a 50/50 male-female split when choosing his new government and when selecting parliamentary candidates for his party, La République en Marche! Macron is as aware as everyone else that there has never been a male presidential consort in the history of France, and sees the need to elevate the position from mere “partner of” to something far more relevant to an egalitarian society.
Opponents are less idealistic, however. Displaying predictable spite, and not a little misogyny, plenty have argued that first ladies need to know their place. An online petition against the creation of the job gathered around 250,000 this week – and the French government has now responded by stating that she will not be granted an official First Lady title or budget, at least for now.
What is clear is that the lobbyists’ arguments mainly concern semantics. Modern first ladies already have up to five personal assistants, a team of security agents, and numerous perks, from the use of state jets to on-call hairdressers and florists. This adds up to a budget easily passing the €1m mark.
Switching the title from first lady to First Lady would not significantly increase this total, and certainly wouldn’t entail much judicial effort either. The new post will be unpaid, and will not require any constitutional change – just the drawing up of a “transparency charter”, according to Macron aides. Rather than a “political” role, they say, it will be a “public” one.
This has not stopped critics citing “Penelopegate”, the scandal which saw British-born Penelope Fillon accused of earning a fortune in taxpayers’ cash over three decades while apparently posing as the parliamentary assistant of her husband, would-be conservative president François Fillon. As the accusations against her intensified, Penelope Fillon did not utter a single word in public. If the allegations had remained hidden, she would undoubtedly have emerged as a first lady in the traditional mould: cynically compliant and for the most part hushed up (or “discreet”, to use the euphemism favoured by François Fillon).
They deny any wrongdoing, but the Fillons are now indicted criminal suspects facing court action and, if found guilty, prison. President Macron is actually trying to clean up French politics. He has just introduced strict legislation to ban MPs and Senators from employing family members. There is no doubt that the Paris political class has been on the gravy train for far too long, and he wants to halt it.
The Brigitte Macron I interviewed during her husband’s electoral campaign was uninterested in making money, or having more flunkies around her. She was not in the slightest bit pushy or personally ambitious. On the contrary, the retired teacher wanted to be taken seriously as a well-educated and highly experienced public servant.
Note how Brigitte Macron’s detractors focus not on her character or intellect, but on her appearance, suggesting that the way she dresses is too young for a 64-year-old. They mock the age gap between her and the 39-year-old President. They laugh at her for daring to organise fleeting meetings with pop stars Bono and Rihanna in Paris. In short, they want to reduce her to another upstart who should be locked away in a quiet salon while her man sorts out domestic and world affairs.
Little is made of it in France, but that is exactly what happened to the last two women who might reasonably have been called première dame. Valérie Trierweiler suffered in silence before being kicked out of the Elysée Palace when President François Hollande was exposed two-timing her with an actress. It was only much later that she spilled all the embarrassing details of her ordeal in a bestselling kiss-and-tell. In turn, Julie Gayet – the thespian Hollande left Trierweiler for – continues to adopt a Penelope-style omerta about her own covert experiences in the Elysée and other official homes.
Such incidents highlight the absolute farce of being the first lady. By making the occupation official, it will at least lose the sense of pitiful anonymity and powerlessness with which it has become associated.
The status of First Lady of the United States did nothing for Michelle Obama’s career as a lawyer, and she often looked awkward taking part in cheesy televised stunts. The function in America is still largely tokenistic – one characterised by emotional displays of empathy and charity fundraising. Although it is not regulated by statute or codified in any way, Michelle Obama nonetheless had the Flotus title and earned respect because of it.
It is only through establishing a “Flof”, and indeed properly defining what premières dames do in France, that they might be guaranteed similar respect, and try to reform what is currently a woeful chore. If there was an ideal candidate to bring about some kind of change, then it was Brigitte Macron. France should reconsider.
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