The new year in France has got off to its traditionally violent start, with hundreds of cars set ablaze across the country and an attempted lynching of two police officers in the suburbs of Paris. Yet in the increasingly surreal world of social media, what is causing uproar is Brigitte Macron’s breach of protocol to stand beside her husband on state visits. The custom has been for president’s wives to stand behind their husbands, but Madame Macron has said that from now she’ll be side by side with her man. ‘A woman does not have to be behind’, she is quoted as saying by RTL radio. Her comments were subsequently elaborated on by Tristan Bromet, her chief of staff, who explained that the break with tradition was the result ‘of the couple she forms with Emmanuel Macron: a modern union in which the woman is placed at the same level as the man’.
The president’s enemies leapt on the news, seizing it as another opportunity to portray the couple as regal and arrogant. In his New Year message the far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon made reference to Macron the ‘monarch’, a jibe that may well be the first of many in 2018 as he looks to portray the president as aloof, out of touch and interested only in the rich.
Last month, Melenchon was one of many on the left who likened Macron to a king for celebrating his 40th birthday in the Loire château of Chambord, and now his wife has been widely mocked on Twitter as the ‘Queen of France’. Others made the inevitable comparison with Marie Antoinette, and one twitterer complained: ‘We elected your husband, not you, so stay where you were please darling.’
The sneers are unlikely to worry the Macrons. Like everything with the president, the move will have been well thought through, designed to appeal to women of a certain age. Last month, Pierre-Olivier Costa, one of Madame Macron’s advisers, disclosed that the 64-year-old is inundated with record numbers of letters for a president’s wife, many of which are from mature women thanking her for restoring their confidence in their own powers of seduction.
Having Brigitte stand alongside the president is also a subtle reinforcement of his pledge to eradicate sexism from French society. In an address in November, the 40-year-old president accused France of being ‘sick with sexism’ and promised to work tirelessly to combat violence and harassment against women, the kind which saw 123 women killed by current or former partners in 2016.
It is a task in which Macron clearly wants his wife to play a significant role, combining her stylish femininity with her schoolteacher firmness to set an example for the rest of the country. One French newspaper reported last month that Brigitte Macron was in regular contact with Marlène Schiappa, the minister for equality, with the pair exchanging ideas and opinions.
‘We are not a puritan society’, Emmanuel Macron said in November, and he knows more than most that seduction is part of the fabric of French life. He first met his future wife when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy and she a 39-year-old mother of three. It’s a love story that wouldn’t be tolerated in the Anglophone world but the French do things differently, and the Macrons more than most.