Partners in power: the trouble with being 'first' yet second

Travails of Brigitte Macron show the confusion that persists over roles of leaders' spouses

France's President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte, walk toward the Elysee Palace courtyard, to welcome autistic people, prior to the launching of a program to enhance the diagnosis and treatment of autism, in Paris, Thursday, July 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)
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The past week has been a bruising one for Brigitte Macron, the new French premiere dame.

If it were advertised the role of consort to the French president would be a very appealing opportunity. With three palaces at the couple’s disposal, a presidential jet and a lifetime of continuing perks, the French state offers a gilded existence.

But the sorry experience of recent occupants tells a different tale. Emmanuel Macron, who became president in May, was forced by an online petition to abandon plans to grant his wife an office of first lady. While unpaid, the job would have come with permanent staff and its own agenda.

The move was designed to avoid a legal vacuum that had tripped up previous presidents. In a civic republic, the idea of a first lady with her own causes and patronage has been controversial. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy, cost the tax payer €437,376 (Dh1.86 million) a year from 2007 to 2012 while the short stay in the Elysee Palace of the partner of his successor Francois Hollande cost €236,904.

The 64-year-old Brigitte is dedicated to the cause of autism in children. She has already hired Pierre-Olivier Costa from Paris City council as head of her section of the presidential staff. In an example of the expectations surrounding the first lady, he was reported to have spent hours on the phone to Chinese diplomats after Beijing requested she act as “godmother” to a panda cub born in a French zoo.

By abandoning the upgrade, Mr Macron has ensured that his wife and those who follow in her footsteps inhabit a political no man's land. No ordinary spouse but not a US-style presidential partner.

To some the climbdown was an opportunity lost to put an end to a French soap opera. “Check out the careers of first ladies of France and you can see why no self-respecting woman would want to go anywhere near the role,” wrote Nabila Ramdani, a Parisian writer. “State-sponsored doormat might be a better description: humiliations range from presidents routinely cheating on their premieres dames to denying them the right to speak for themselves at all.”

It is not just France that struggles to define the role. All the major democracies, with the notable exception of the United States, has seen women and men struggle with their spouses' rise to power. Even in Washington, it is only the good grace of the women who have been first lady that has resulted in an absence of scandal. If Michelle Obama was an inspiration in the White House, it must be noted Hillary Clinton bore her husband’s philandering with a stoic dignity. The Bush women were models of aristocratic good cheer.

“Everyone who ends up married to the head of government or head of state does the job in their own way but it always says something — often a great deal — about them both,” said Anne Perkins, a British commentator. “After all, spouses are built into campaign agendas.

“It is only necessary to imagine Barack Obama without Michelle to understand just how powerful the right partner can be.”

The "wrong" partner can be a handful for both security teams and ordinary citizens. Canadians still talk of how Margaret Trudeau, the much younger wife of the charismatic Pierre, prime minister in the 1960s through 1980s, danced at New York’s Studio 54 with Mick Jagger.

More recently the couple’s son Justin and daughter-in-law Sophie, now also inhabitants of the prime minister’s official residence, ran into trouble when the former TV presenter sought to boost her staff support.

Attempts to continue in a career are also highly risky. Cherie Blair, the lawyer wife of Tony Blair, was pilloried for representing Malaysian businessmen and other wealthy clients during his decade in Downing Street.

Samantha Cameron was also on the receiving end of barbs as she maintained a job at the upmarket stationery and luxury goods firm Smythson while David Cameron presided over an austerity government.

Spouses with strong views risk gaining a reputation as dissents. Akia Abe, the wife of Japanese leader Shinzo, has written a book titled I Live My Own Life and is often out of step with his government.

At least none of these women experienced the humiliation of Veronica Berlusconi, who was forced to blow the whistle on her husband’s sordid parties with young women in his many mansions around the country in what came to be known as the Bunga Bunga scandal.

The men appear to have it easier. Joachim Sauer, husband of Angela Merkel, tends to the type of high-brow interests common among quantum chemists. Philip May, the husband of Theresa, has maintained, without controversy, his job in fund management in the City of London.

Perhaps the happiest of all first men — probably all the spouses —  in recent history was Dennis Thatcher. His social merry-go-round at golf clubs and private members clubs with his elderly, wealthy male friends was satirised in the magazine Private Eye's Dear Bill letters.

Who else could refer to formidable Iron Lady as the Blessed Margaret, and get away without a withering stare?

Mr Macron's wife faces a second whispering campaign that could ultimately prove more insidious than any first lady controversy.

The age gap between the pair is 24 years. That is the same as the difference between Donald and Melania Trump but only the French couple are subjected to vicious slurs. Brigitte has been tagged “Barbie Senior” and the “granny at the Elysee”.


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