The French government has halted its proposed creation of an official “first lady” role for Brigitte Macron, the wife of President Emmanuel Macron, after an online petition against the plan quickly racked up more than 275,000 signatures.
Though the Macron administration has made no official announcement, the Guardian reported that aides to President Macron said his wife’s position will be clarified by a “transparency charter” in the coming days, but that she will not play a political role, only a public one.
The controversy over Brigitte Macron’s proposed official status is only the latest chapter in the turbulent relationship between France and its first ladies. It’s safe to say that presidential spouses (and they have all been women so far) are viewed very differently in France than in the United States. Though in both countries the first lady role is an unofficial one, American first ladies are generally seen as influential public figures—even role models—in their own right, with many of them enjoying higher popularity ratings than their Oval Office-occupying mates.
In France, les première dames also take on a highly public role, appearing alongside their husbands at official functions and often taking on their own charity causes. They are usually allotted an office at the Elysée Palace, the official presidential residence in Paris, along with a small staff. But in most respects, French first ladies have typically not exerted as much influence, or enjoyed as much public support, as their counterparts across the Atlantic.
The volatile history of French first ladies goes back at least as far as Marie-Antoinette, whose profligate spending helped fuel the French Revolution. From her famous quote “Let them eat cake” (which she actually never said) to her elaborate hairdos and lavish Versailles parties, the queen provided an all-too-convenient target for the anger of the French press and public. Dragged by a mob to prison in the Tuileries in 1789, both Marie-Antoinette and her husband, King Louis XVI, lost their heads to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror.
Josephine de Beauharnais had lost her own husband to the guillotine several years before meeting Napoleon Bonaparte, the diminutive Corsican general six years her junior. Though she had two teenage children when they married, Empress Josephine failed to produce an heir with Napoleon, and in 1809 he took a page from Henry VIII’s playbook and had the marriage annulled. Josephine died five years later, supposedly of a broken heart.
Then there was that time a French first lady murdered someone. In the summer of 1914, with World War I looming, all of Paris was obsessed with the trial of Henriette Caillaux, wife of Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux. The previous March, Madame Caillaux had walked into the offices of the newspaper Le Figaro, waited patiently for a meeting with its editor, Gaston Calmette, and fired six shots from her automatic pistol, killing him. (Calmette, a right-wing foe of the leftist prime minister, had threatened to publish adulterous love letters between Henriette and her husband when he was still married to his first wife.) Eight days later—the same day Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia—the jury acquitted Madame Caillaux, calling hers a crime passionnel.
Though many French people of an earlier generation knew Yvonne de Gaulle, wife of President Charles de Gaulle, as “Tante Yvonne,” or “Aunt Yvonne,” she was more the aloof, disapproving aunt than the fun-loving, popular one. A devout Catholic, she faithfully guarded the moral character of France (and specifically her husband’s), advocating for a ban on miniskirts and refusing to entertain divorced or adulterous people at the Elysée Palace.
In recent decades, many of France’s first ladies have had their share of public indignities to suffer. While putting up with her husband François’ double life (he had a daughter with his longtime mistress) during the 1980s and ‘90s, Danielle Mitterand reportedly had her own love affairs, even as she used her public position to further far-left causes, including a public kiss with Fidel Castro on the steps of the Elysée.
In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, Cecilia, left him for her lover six months after he took office; he then remarried Carla Bruni, a French-Italian singer-songwriter and former model who had previously dated Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger. Bruni then made headlines in 2008 when she revealed that if her lack of French citizenship hadn’t prevented her from voting in the last election, she would have voted against her future husband.
Macron’s immediate predecessor in office, François Hollande, wasn’t married to his longtime partner, Valerie Trierweiler. After a celebrity magazine outed Hollande’s affair with the actress Julie Gayet, Trierweiler published a damaging tell-all book about the Socialist leader.
The Macrons’ relationship has attracted more than its fair share of gossip and speculation, most of it focused on their age difference (she’s 24 years older) and how they met (she was his teacher). Brigitte Macron was highly influential in her husband’s political rise, and played an active role in his campaign, advising him on speeches and helping shape his agenda.
During the campaign, Macron announced he would create an official position for his wife if he won as an effort to be transparent and “end the hypocrisy” over the controversial issue of presidential spouses or family members playing a political role. With Macron’s popularity ratings dropping (only 36 percent of respondents in a recent poll were satisfied with his performance), the BBC reported that critics have accused him of trying to use his wife to improve his image or of copying the U.S. model of the politically active, popular first lady—specifically the example set by Michelle Obama.
Though Macron always insisted his wife’s official position would not be paid for with public funds, the online petition created by the artist Thierry Paul Vallette, founder of the National Equality Movement, argued the plan would still cost French taxpayers money.
“There is no reason for the wife of the head of state to get paid through public funds,” Valette wrote. “Brigitte Macron currently has a team of two or three aides, as well as two secretaries and two security agents. That’s enough.”
Apparently, more than 275,000 people agreed.