For Parisian bourgeois society at least, the fact that the wife of France’s presidential hopeful is old enough to be his mother does not raise even the flicker of an eyebrow. Nor does the fact that she was his teacher on whom he had a massive teenage crush, or that she ended up leaving her husband for him when she was 52 with three children just about his age (then 27). Even France’s celebrity magazines don’t report this story as scandal. It is simply a bit of colour. If anything a feather in Emmanuel Macron’s hat, a sign of something a little classy about him.
For this chronically romantic nation, there’s a whiff of ‘the grand passion’ about the Macrons that makes them uniquely appealing in an otherwise pretty drab line-up of contenders. Not just for the educated bourgeoisie, but for the nation as a whole, the couple now gunning for the Elysées embodies one of the romantic fantasies of mainstream French culture – that of love conquering all, including public censure and parental disapproval. Macron’s mother, Françoise Noguès-Macron with whom he seems always to have always had a strained relationship, is said to have told Brigitte Macron all those years ago, “I forbid you to see him until he’s 18!” Warning off the then young wife and mother with a stinging and pre-emptive reproach she went on, “You don’t understand. You already have your life. He won’t be able to have children.”
For my Parisian girlfriend Hortense, to whom I always go for her take on matters of the French heart, the Macrons echo the French romantic literary tradition of the older (married) women being pursued by the young, ambitious hero. “Emmanuel is Julien Sorel in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (a 19th century bestseller that explored the duel fires of social ambition and romantic passion) and Brigitte is his Madame Arnoux [the older woman loved by the hero of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education].”
When I asked Hortense about rumours that were circulating during Macron’s campaign about his secret homosexuality, she swept them aside. “Non, non. He’s not gay. I think he’s not into sex. It’s the passion of power. I think he has always sublimated his sex drive.”
This view seems to be close to the opinion of Macron’s biographer, political columnist, Anne Fulda. Invited on to French television she boldly described Macron as “an asexual Don Juan,” a man constantly in search of new adventures and conquests but of a non-erotic kind. Indeed, the fact that Macron was the kind of 17 year-old capable of announcing to his teacher, Brigitte, on the eve of his departure for Paris to continue his education, “Whatever you do, I will marry you!” suggests exactly the kind of ‘sublimated sex drive’ you’d expect to find in a 19th century romantic hero.
Brigitte Macron herself, in a televised interview about the early phase of their relationship, uses a line of which Madame Bovary herself would have been proud: “Little by little, he overcame all my resistance with an unbelievable patience.” If tabloid journalists are too intrusive or smutty in their line of questioning, she quotes Beaumarchais at them: “Calumniate, calumniate; there will always be something which sticks.”
A great brain in her own right, Brigitte Macron is not likely to hide her light under a bushel. All through the Macron campaign she has been omnipresent, frequently on tour with him as he was canvasing across France, or in the first row at his rallies, or hosting salon-style dinner parties to take the pulse of the Parisian intelligentsia. She will be by Macron’s side if he gets into the Elysées, coaching and cajoling and generally making sure he doesn’t misstep, as he did on campaign when he controversially called France’s colonial past in Algeria, ‘a crime against humanity.’ There were plenty of jokes in the French blogosphere in the aftermath of that blunder calling on Brigitte to “check Emmanuel’s homework” before letting him loose on public life.
There is nothing modern, then, in the eyes of the French public about this couple. It’s the old archetype of the strong woman behind the man. Indeed it very much feeds into both France’s romantic and its enduringly patriarchal traditions. The nation is a very, very long way away from something that really would be taboo, the figure of the woman pushing open the doors to the Elysées Palace with her much younger lover and intellectual champion at her side.
A version of this post appeared in The Times T2 Section on April 25th 2017