Having recently hosted Bono and Rihanna and taken centre stage during Donald Trump’s visit to France, Brigitte Macron now has a new role to keep herself busy. The French President’s wife was named last week as the godmother of the first baby panda born in a French zoo. Macron said she was ‘very happy’ to be asked. But, increasingly, France is not feeling her joy and there is growing resentment at her presence in the Élysée Palace.
An online petition launched two weeks ago by the artist Thierry Paul Valette opposing the creation of a formal role for Brigitte Macron as First Lady has been signed by nearly 200,000 people. The petition says that it would be immoral of her to use public money ‘at a time when the state wishes to make savings in the military budget and wishes to clean up political life’. Pointing out that Macron already has ‘two or three assistants as well as two secretaries and two security staff’, Valette said her exact role should be decided by a referendum and not a presidential decree.
To an extent, Madame Macron has her husband to blame for her growing number of critics. His popularity continues to fall with the most recent poll showing only 36 per cent of French people are satisfied with their new president, and she is being tarnished by association. Back in June, when the Macrons were still enjoying their honeymoon period, Brigitte was receiving nearly 150 letters a day – five times more than Carla Bruni received when she moved into the Élysée Palace as the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy. When Brigitte wasn’t answering her correspondence, she was lunching with members of her husband’s government, notably the Ministers of Health and Education, in the hope of ‘finding a cause in which she can invest’. She is particularly keen to increase the awareness of autism, which afflicts more than 600,000 people in France, but which has suffered from a lack of research.
Among her staff she is said to be popular, bringing to the Élysée a ‘relaxed atmosphere’ with her sense of humour and concern for their welfare. But that won’t cut much ice with the French public. At a time when their government is making swingeing cuts to public spending, while also talking incessantly of their wish to restore morality to politics, granting the president’s wife an allowance from the public purse would be seized on by his opponents.
The problem for Macron is that during his presidential campaign he had declared that his wife would have ‘a fully public role’ in the event of his election. ‘I want there to be a defined role for her, and I will ask for a proposal to be presented on how to proceed in that regard’, he said, emphasising that public funds would not pay her salary.
Three months on from his election, however, and she still has no defined role, instead spending her time hosting pop stars and gushing about baby pandas. It’s another sign of the muddled thinking coming out of the Élysée; inexperience that can easily be exploited by the president’s enemies.
At the end of July, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left party, La France Insoumise [Unsubmissive France] launched what Paris Match described as ‘an assault’ on Brigitte Macron in the National Assembly. During a debate on the proposed new ethics bill, the party’s 17 MPs attempted unsuccessfully to add an amendment to the bill that will prohibit public funds being given to spouses or partners of ministers and MPs, a long-standing tradition among French politicians until the scandal that fatally undermined Francois Fillon’s presidential campaign. La France Insoumise wanted the same rule to apply to the president’s wife, but they were comprehensively outvoted. Their failure, however, led to the launch of the online petition. As the number of signatures continues to grow, so does the pressure on the presidential couple to ensure they don’t stand accused of appearing aloof and out of touch. Particularly at a time when the rest of the country is being asked to make sacrifices.