Is Brigitte Macron her husband's biggest strength - or his weakness?
OPINION: She is a grandmother of seven who still looks glamorous in skinny jeans and thigh-skimming leather skirts with stilettos. Brigitte Macron, married to a man 24 years her junior, was never one for convention, and last week the former schoolteacher from Amiens was at the centre of a row that went to the very heart of the French state and its constitution.
Some 280,000 people signed a petition to block a proposal by President Emmanuel Macron for his wife to be given a formal role as first lady. Had it gone through, it would have made Brigitte the first wife of a French president to control her own budget, openly influence policy and carry out specific duties.
The first lady's role is not officially defined or codified in France and, unlike their American counterparts, French first ladies, while they do generally get their own office at the Elysee Palace and staff to organise their diaries and help them reply to letters, tend to remain demurely in the background. Not something Brigitte Macron is used to.
Before Brigitte ascended the steps of the palace in a powder-blue Louis Vuitton dress and jacket, France's most high-profile first lady was Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the model and singer whose husband Nicolas was president from 2007 to 2012. Despite having a staff of eight costing $706,325 a year, Bruni-Sarkozy was famously unhappy at the Elysee.
When Francois Hollande became president, his then-girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler took over the role of first lady and would recall a conversation with Bruni-Sarkozy. "I still remember Carla's tears when she told me everything people had said about her," Trierweiler said. "If you're the head of state's partner, you're observed from the feet to the head. You mustn't have a single wrinkle, you must say nothing."
Discontented, often bored, first ladies are said in France to be afflicted by the "curse of the Elysee" and it is a sign of Macron's devotion that he tried to get Brigitte an enhanced status. Even if public opinion has forced him to back down for now, the row over the role of the first lady is unlikely to go away, for not only is Brigitte the beloved wife of the 39-year-old President, she is also his closest political adviser.
With her slim figure, peroxide blonde bob and insistence (in front of aides) that he eat healthy food, 64-year-old Brigitte has been described as a French Jane Fonda. And the French, traditionally unfussed about their presidents' often colourful love lives, are obsessed by her. Not a week goes by without photographs of her in glossy weeklies and gossip magazines. Often the focus is on what she is wearing, something of a spectator sport for the French, for whom le look is everything.
Isabel Spearman, the stylist who carefully crafted Samantha Cameron's appearance during the Downing Street years, hails her as "an icon of ageless style", but detractors say she wears clothes that are too young for her and she has been dubbed both "the first grandmother" and "a menopausal Barbie". They criticise her above-the-knee skirts, displaying her toned, perma-tanned legs, but Spearman says: "If I have legs like her at her age, I'll show them, too."
The story of how the Macrons met when he was a 15-year-old pupil in her daughter's year at the Jesuit school where she taught literature and drama is as gripping as a TV soap opera. Then married to a banker with three children, she blithely disregarded gossip and scandal when she fell in love with Macron 23 years ago and today seems just as unfazed by the political fracas and criticism that has come her way. The novelist Philippe Besson, a friend of the Macrons, said: "She is much more of a non-conformist than her husband and often makes self-deprecating jokes."
Her ability to shrug off setbacks and criticism, while astutely assessing opportunities, has made her invaluable to her husband. Her toughness and drive, twinned with charm and a megawatt smile, played a fundamental part in propelling Macron, a relative political unknown, to victory against the odds in one of France's hardest-fought elections in recent memory.
She drilled and coached him before make-or-break campaign speeches, reassuming her early role as his drama teacher (a career she gave up to devote herself to her husband's political ambitions), carefully weighing and testing every phrase, and usually having the final say. Acting as his harshest critic, she always coaxed him to do better.
During Macron's election campaign, the atmosphere at his headquarters was akin to that of a hi-tech start-up, staffed mainly by millennials. Brigitte's humour and "allure rock" style helped her fit in. Getting the look right is paramount for a first lady, says Spearman, but she stresses: "It's got to reflect her natural style." Spearman says that when choosing Samantha Cameron's outfits: "We wanted to showcase the best of British fashion but we also had to be careful to think about what people wear day-to-day."
Last week, it emerged that Brigitte has engaged the services of a stylist in his thirties, Mathieu Barthelat Colin, known for dressing a former Miss France, TV presenters and a popular singer, Lio. He has been guiding her away from establishment labels towards edgier, younger brands, but is now reportedly developing styles aimed at winning over the public.
Spearman says if he can make her appear friendlier, half the battle will be won. "I think she looks fantastic, but more femininity and softer styles would make her look more approachable. She looks rather terrifying in some of her power jackets with the shoulder padding. More dresses would be good."
The Macrons' May to December union appeared momentarily scandalous, but the age difference now tends to play well with women. Had he been 24 years older than Brigitte, many point out, no one in France would have raised an eyebrow. Among French men, however, it is a different story. Being married to an older woman has exposed Macron to claims that it is a sham. During his election campaign, he was forced to deny rumours that he was gay.
But it is now the argument over Brigitte's official role that has become a stumbling block for both her and her husband. Macron's approval rating plunged in July to a record low for a French president two months into his term, with only 42 per cent of voters still giving him the thumbs-up. Another poll has since placed his rating even lower, at 36 per cent, as the famously mutinous French rebel against what many see as his authoritarian or arrogant streak.
Making matters worse, the controversy arose as Macron pushed through legislation banning MPs from employing family members as assistants. The public are still furious over the revelation that former prime minister Francois Fillon, once the presidential front-runner, had spent about $1.6 million of public money on allegedly "fake" jobs for his British wife and two of their children. While MPs overwhelmingly backed the new law, in private many grumbled that it made them all look like potential cheats. Naturally, they then questioned why Macron's wife should hold an official position when they could no longer employ theirs.
As the Macrons went on holiday in their native France this week, his aides were still insisting that he had sought to do no more than bring transparency to the role of first lady. There was never a plan to give her a salary, they stressed. Setting a budget for the first lady's staff, Macron argued, would have ended discrepancies in the costs of successive presidential spouses. He may be right, but for now it is a theory that will have to remain unproven. Accordingly, Macron's aides say he has now ditched his plan to amend the constitution and will go no further than publishing a "first lady's charter" setting out her role.
How her role in her marriage will play out during the next five years remains to be seen. One thing is sure, Brigitte Macron will not quietly assume a role in the shadows - if anyone can break the "curse of the Elysee" it will probably be her.
The Telegraph, London