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Letters from Paris: How the ‘Première Dame’ Encapsulates Clichés

The Croft Magazine // In this week's Letter, Xander Brett addresses the misreporting around COVID, and explores role of the president's spouse.

By Xander Brett, Third Year, History of Art and French

The Croft Magazine // In this week's Letter, Xander Brett addresses the misreporting around COVID, and explores role of the president's spouse.

11th October, 2020

New Caledonia remains part of the French Republic. It strikes me, however, that New Caledonia was not the only event to go misreported – or indeed unreported – this week. Reading the British news, I was surprised to learn of restaurants in Paris closing. This is incorrect… though with reporting on the ground so hard, it was, I’m sure, unintentional. Restaurants, bistros, brasseries and cafés are permitted to stay open.

Monday saw the funeral of Juliette Gréco. A flurry of mourners, fans and paparazzi gathered outside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, opposite the Café Deux Magots and the Café de Flore, where Gréco spent so much of her time. Among the guests: Brigitte Macron, former president François Hollande, and Hollande’s partner Julie Gayet. Rather than Gréco, it was the guests that attracted media attention. Excitement at having both the spouse of the sitting president and the partner of the former president was combined with talk of another presidential spouse. On Friday, Carla Bruni (wife of former president Nicolas Sarkozy) released her fourth album.

The private life of French presidential spouses has been gossip for years, but it has never amounted to more than a few tabloids. Danielle Mitterrand endured waves of information about her husband’s extramarital affairs. Bernadette Chirac had several romances, and there were even rumours of an illegitimate daughter. But, in 2014, evidence of an affair between President Hollande and Julie Gayet captured the world’s attention. Seven years after Sarkozy, Hollande would become France’s second president to divorce in office.

Hôtel des Invalides | Epigram / Xander Brett

On 10th January 2014, the nation awoke to pictures of him visiting Gayet. Published by gossip magazine Closer, they showed a series of events that proved the president’s infidelity. Gayet was seen arriving at a flat near the Elysée Palace. Half an hour later, the president’s bodyguard checked the premises. After a few minutes, President Hollande arrived, driven by a chauffeur on a three-wheeled scooter. Next morning, his bodyguard visited with a bag of croissants. The international media exploded. Correspondents were sent to Paris… but they couldn’t find anyone to speak to. The French weren’t interested. They respected their president’s position as being both Head of State and citizen. When Hollande threatened legal action, it was the citizen speaking, not the president. Clearly, it was Hollande’s wife, Valérie Trierweiler, who was the victim, not the country. Trierweiler’s stress was so bad, in fact, that she was hospitalised. Hollande visited after a week, and eight days later their separation was announced.

In 2017, the world press exploded once more. As it became increasingly clear that Emmanuel Macron was to succeed Hollande, attention turned to his ‘grandmother’ wife. Throughout his campaign, Macron stated that upon ascending to the presidency, his wife would ‘not be hidden’. He proposed creating an official ‘First Lady’ title for her, though he abandoned this after a petition of 275,000 signatures. Like Hollande’s unfaithfulness, the French seldom discuss Brigitte Macron’s 25-year age gap to the President. She met the 15-year-old Macron at school in Amiens (he was a pupil in her literature and theatre classes). They hid a clandestine romance for years. Already married, it wasn’t until 2006 that Brigitte accepted that life without Emmanuel was impossible. She divorced her husband and remarried in 2007.

While the president stands as quasi-official, quasi-normal, the wives of French presidents represent the glamorous ideals of this country. Stripped of formalities awarded to US First Ladies, they decorate the covers of Vogue and Paris Match… endlessly fascinating, often mysterious. The première dame encapsulates clichés.

Featured Image: Epigram / Xander Brett

Listen to Xander's weekly Burst Radio podcast 'Letters from Paris'.