The fact that Emmanuel Macron met his wife Brigitte, 24 years his elder and once his teacher, in a classroom setting has shocked the British public.
In fact, it’s stunned everyone – except the French.
Transposing the situation to a candidate in the UK’s general election is basically impossible; it would send shockwaves throughout British politics. But as a French person, it’s the reaction that I find surprising. The Macrons’ story is unusual and interesting, sure, but it’s also no big deal.
It’s a cliché that French politicians are forever upsetting the country’s politics with their love affairs. But even when you move beyond the stereotypes, it’s true that the French do have a vastly different attitude than their British counterparts when it comes to sex and relationships.
Firstly, pupil-teacher relationships in France are not frowned upon as a deeply inappropriate affair, as long as both parties are over the age of 18. That’s not to say that these relationships are common, but as long as consent applies and the law is respected, people mind their own business.
Secondly, French presidents have, since time immemorial, made ink run on paper about their relationships with younger and beautiful women.
Despite their 13-year age gap and significant height difference, former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, former model Carla Bruni, threw a screen of glamour over his murky affairs.
More recently, revelations of President Francois Hollande’s reported love affair with actress and film producer Julie Gayet, who is 18 years younger, was splashed across the front pages.
So Brigitte, the daughter of a renowned chocolatier and macaron-maker in the northern city of Amiens, who has been married to Macron for 10 years, will not shock the French.
And yet the backstory of Macron’s romance with his school sweetheart continues to intrigue, and has become the subject of great gossip and speculation even in his home country.
But this has nothing to do with pupil-teacher relationships, French politics or romantic behaviour. This is simply sexism.
What is fuelling endless chatter about Macron’s position in the relationship and his history with Brigitte is the fact that she is his senior. If Macron had been a woman and Brigitte a man, likely there would never have been such an uproar – at least in France.
In the US, there has been no backlash against Donald Trump, whose flamboyant wife Melania Trump is 24 years younger than him – strangely enough, that’s the same age gap as the Macrons.
Brigitte, 64, a grandmother of seven, is no doubt very conscious about her age and strives to look youthful on the arm of her 39-year-old husband, who could become France’s youngest president.
A key player in Macron’s En Marche! movement, Brigitte initially avoided the publicity surrounding Emmanuel Macron’s campaign. But as Macron’s popularity rose through the polls, so did interest in the woman who shares his life and could one day join him at the Elysée Palace.
On Sunday night, Macron walked on stage triumphant after winning the election’s first round, holding tight onto Brigitte’s hand and claiming that “without her, I wouldn’t be me”.
Criticism of Brigitte as the ageing peroxide blonde about to step in the shoes of a first lady is just another expression of misogyny in the political sphere. And it ignores the fact that her age and experience may prove essential to balance the political immaturity Macron has been accused of. What is certain is that if Macron wins on 7 May, she will stand proud by his side – whatever the tabloids across Europe make of it.
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