Why Brigitte Macron is the most loved French first lady for years

Supportive yet discreet, strong but without ambition, the president’s wife is a huge hit in a country which reveres alluring older women

From a very young age, Brigitte Macron, née Trogneux, must have seen people beaming at her whenever she mentioned her family business: they were chocolatiers. Children of French pâtissiers and boulangers also know this feeling of gourmand envy and admiration. At my school in Paris in the 1980s, those kids were always the most popular, far more sought after than the children of aristocrats with châteaux in the country.

Perhaps it is thanks to this auspicious beginning in life, then, that Macron, 65, seems to have retained a sunny disposition. We have yet to see a picture of her looking brooding or angry, no small feat for someone constantly scrutinised by the celebrity press in search of new wrinkles, signs of fatigue and faux-pas.

It makes a nice change from recent French first ladies such as Cécilia Sarkozy or Valérie Trierweiler, the former partner of François Hollande: both women always looked uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in their role or in their relationships – who knows? Both, probably. Macron, however, appears to have problems with neither. A year after her husband’s election, even as he has seen his own popularity plunge, she is flourishing.

A recent poll by Paris Match found that 67% of the French had a very good opinion of the president’s wife. They were fonder of Brigitte Macron than of any other French first lady in history except Bernadette Chirac. She is said to receive 100 letters every day at the Élysée palace, far more than her predecessors. Supportive yet discreet, an independent woman with character and style but without political ambition for herself, she seems to have struck the right chord with the nation.

She may have been helped in this by some simple steps taken by Élysée to bring, for the first time since 1958 and the start of the Fifth Republic, some long overdue transparency to the role and activities of the French first lady. A previously undefined position has become a little clearer. Every month Macron’s meetings and initiatives are published by the Élysée, and, even if she is not expected to perform anywhere near as many duties as, for example, the spouse of the US president, she still is fairly busy.

In June, for instance, among other things, she went to the theatre, which she loves, and visited the Pompidou centre’s new exhibitions; she attended funerals, had meetings with MPs, a lunch with the French football team, accompanied her husband to the G7 summit in Montréal, spent time with the Trudeaus, went to see the pope, and gave a dinner for a cardinal. She visited schools developing anti-bullying campaigns, and learning centres welcoming autistic children: two causes understood to be close to her heart.

But her popularity goes beyond the day-to-day job. The fact that she faced the scandal of leaving her husband for a former pupil who was the same age as her children, in provincial France, is seen by many as showing her resolve. In fact, being 25 years older than her husband perhaps increases her appeal with the French. The country has always boasted alluring mature female figures. Remember the 1940s star Arletty; think chanteuse Juliette Gréco, actresses Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche: all women whose talent, wit, intelligence and character played as big a part as their beauty.

The French also like style. When I say style, I mean a way of doing things that is both idiosyncratic and universal. In Macron’s case, her fashion doesn’t do her any favours: her look is slightly dated, a little like her blond bob. She was a teenager in the 1960s and a working woman in the 1980s, and this shows. As the French political commentator Anne-Élisabeth Moutet puts it: “Her choice of Vuitton as her official dresser was probably not the best. Nicolas Ghesquière, Vuitton’s artistic director, may be in his 40s but he is stuck in the past. She has a small frame and those jackets with shoulder pads are not becoming.” Yet the French don’t seem to mind much. She is seen to have a style that transcends sartorial mishaps.

I refer here to her habit of walking and thinking, of organising daily walkabout meetings with her staff. We call it flâner, or as Lauren Elkin, Paris-based American author of the bestseller Flâneuse put it, of “flâneuse-ing”. Walking through Paris every morning not only allows Macron to think more clearly but also to meet people going about their day and eager to share their thoughts. As Elkin wrote: “The flâneurs, attuned to the chords that vibrate throughout their city, know without knowing.” François Mitterrand used to wander along Paris’s riverbanks in the same way, taking with him a minister or an adviser. Mitterrand, elected twice, left a deep mark on French politics.

Emmanuel Macron, who has recently been seriously tainted by the Benalla scandal (one of his bodyguards, now sacked, impersonated a policeman at a May Day demonstration and assaulted two protesters), might like to try it. His reputation for being too Jupiterian would be helped. He might be seen as less out of touch. It may still not be enough, however, for him to dare to hope that he will one day be as popular as his wife.

Yvonne de Gaulle (1959-1969)

Yvonne de Gaulle
Yvonne de Gaulle had no official role in French public life. Photograph: Levy/AP

Few people remember her – not because she was not memorable, but because the president’s wife held no official role at the start of the Fifth Republic. Even figures like Mesdames Mitterrand and Giscard d’Estaing were confined to polite semi-obscurity with, perhaps, the exception of Madame Pompidou, known for her love of the arts and couture.

Bernadette Chirac (1995–2007)

Bernadette Chirac
Bernadette Chirac could be described as the first French first lady. Photograph: Proust Frederic/Sygma via Getty Images

A wife in the traditional mould, Chirac was probably the first French first lady, and a tough cookie at that. She was notably admired for putting up with Jacques’ affairs, although she said in 2001 she had warned him repeatedly that “Napoleon started to lose everything the day that he abandoned Josephine”.

Cécilia Sarkozy
Cécilia Sarkozy was briefly France’s first lady in 2007. Photograph: Sipa Press/Rex/Shutterstock

Cécilia Sarkozy (2007)

She didn’t vote for her husband in the second ballot and was last seen at an official event at the Bastille Day celebrations just two months after Nicolas Sarkozy became president. Was controversially dispatched by the Élysée to Libya to try to secure the release of a group of foreign medics from jail. Sarkozy’s office announced they had separated in October of the same year.

Carla Bruni was Nicolas Sarkozy’s second first lady.
Carla Bruni was Nicolas Sarkozy’s second first lady. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis via Getty Images

Carla Bruni-Sarkozy (2008-2012)

The polyglot Piedmontese heiress and model-turned-chanteuse, right, proved a gracious and impeccably attired representative of French culture. The couple remain married and had a daughter in 2011.

Valérie Trierweiler
Journalist Valérie Trierweiler’s relationship with François Hollande ended when he had an affair with actress Julie Gayet. Photograph: Chesnot/SIPA/Rex Features

Valerie Trierweiler (2012-2014)

The Paris Match journalist was briefly France’s first girlfriend before François Hollande was found to be having an affair with the actress Julie Gayet. Trierweiler was quickly overshadowed by her rival, who did not perform any official role while Hollande was in the Élysée.


Agnès Poirier

The GuardianTramp

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