France Doesn’t Want A First Lady — Is That Sexist?

by Alex Gladu
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France, it seems, isn't ready for a first lady. Although Americans widely recognize the role of the president's wife in his administration, French voters don't find the idea of a first lady necessary or appropriate, according to a petition with nearly 300,000 supporters. The petition opposes a formal first lady-like role for Brigitte Macron, the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron.

The French president reportedly began talk of formalizing a first lady role on the campaign trail. According to CNN, the French constitution does not specify a role for the president's spouse, but it does allow the spouse to have an office and a small staff, including a security team. Macron, whose wife appeared alongside him throughout the presidential campaign, wants to change the lack of an official role.

But Macron's constituents seem content to keep things the way they are. An online petition to oppose the "première Dame" status for Macron's wife had more than 291,000 signatures on Tuesday. The petition's author, Thierry Paul Valette, who identifies himself as a painter and an actor, wrote:

There is no reason for the wife of the head of state to get a budget out of public funds. Brigitte Macron currently has a team of two to three collaborators, as well as two secretaries and two security guards, and that is enough.
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Brigitte has faced intense criticism during her time as the wife of the president (as well as when he was just a presidential candidate). Much of the focus has been on her unconventional relationship with her husband. At 64, she is nearly 25 years older than the president. In fact, of her three children, Brigitte has one son older than her husband, and one son born the same year. It's not just the age gap that people criticize, though — the president and his wife met while she was his high school teacher.

In May, when Macron assumed the presidency, Brigitte's daughter called out her mother's critics. "I find it abhorrent in France in the 21st century such attacks, which would not be carried out against a male politician or a male companion of a female politician," Tiphaine Auzière said. She also attributed the attacks on her mother to "jealousy."

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Still, the creator of the now-viral online petition has maintained that sexism isn't behind his opposition to the first lady role. "We fiercely denounce all the sexist attacks against Brigitte Macron and we do not call into question her skills," the petition reads.

Instead, Valette has argued that the French people didn't vote for Brigitte to represent them. If she is going to represent them in a formal capacity, the petition argues, the matter should be put to a vote.

If this issue is to be decided, it must be done in the context of a referendum and not by a single man. It is up to the people of France to choose their representation and no other.

In this way, the petition points to a significant difference between the American idea of a first lady and the French point of view. In the U.S., presidential spouses serve as representatives of their husband's or wife's campaign and administration from the very start. Their backgrounds are analyzed by public opinion, they organize events on behalf of their candidate, and they can even adopt political issues for which they wish to advocate. First Lady Hillary Clinton is remembered for her advocacy of women's rights, while First Lady Michelle Obama campaigned for kids to eat healthy, stay active, and go to college.

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In France, news about the president's spouse tends to take the form of gossip. For instance, former French President Francois Hollande was known for his various relationships with at least three different women. Meanwhile, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was known for divorcing his long-time wife and remarrying another woman shortly thereafter while in office. (Sarkozy is also known, more recently, for charges of campaign finance misconduct.)

Ultimately, the idea that a French first lady may foray into politics doesn't seem to sit right with approximately 300,000 people and counting. While Macron has faced her fair share of criticism over her relationship with the president, the debate over a first lady's role may have more to do with French democratic tradition than anything else. For now, it seems Macron will remain in her undefined role.