Friday 24 May 2019

A peek inside France's most unlikely love affair in new book on the Macrons

As a new book lifts the lid on the romance between the French president and his wife, 24 years his senior, the Macrons never fail to fascinate, writes David Chazan

Power couple: French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images
Power couple: French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

David Chazan

They are one of the world's most intriguing political couples. The taboo-breaking, generation-spanning romance between Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, 24 years his senior and his former drama teacher, has captivated people across the globe. The fascination with the woman who left her first husband, father of her three children, for one of her students who would one day become the president of France, is endless. And now a new book promises to shed light on this unlikely love story.

Il Venait D'Avoir Dix-Sept Ans ('He Had Just Turned 17') by Sylvie Bommel, a respected journalist who writes for Le Journal du Dimanche, covers their childhoods, their meeting and the dynamics of their current relationship.

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Emmanuel was an exceptionally gifted 16-year-old schoolboy (Brigitte's daughter, Laurence, once came home from her Catholic school and told her: "Mummy, there is a crazy boy in our class who knows everything about everything") when he fell head over heels in love with his glamorous teacher.

Soon after they met, the book reveals, he alluded to her favourite novel in a school essay that won a national prize. "If no one has lived romantic aspirations as intensely as Emma, in Flaubert's Madame Bovary, many people have at some time experienced a penchant for 'Bovarism', perhaps only deep within themselves," the future president wrote.

Bommel speculates he may have been addressing Brigitte directly. She had often told pupils of her love of Flaubert's masterpiece, and many had already noticed the close rapport that developed almost instantly between teacher and schoolboy.

Bommel says she wrote the book because: "I wanted to understand how a woman from the provincial petite bourgeoisie, educated by nuns, had the incredible audacity to defy her family and popular morality to make a second life with a man 24 years younger." When Macron joined Brigitte's drama club, she had been married to André-Louis Auzière, a banker, for nearly two decades. He is shown in Bommel's book to be intelligent and kind, but dull, like Monsieur Bovary. Two years older than Brigitte, who was just 21 when they married, her first husband is described as handsome, "tall, dark and slim, with fine features". Yet, one friend says, "he was no fun", with another telling the author: "At dinner parties, he scarcely uttered a word."

A female friend of Brigitte says: "He was so neutral. A bit like lukewarm water beside her, while she was always sparkling." The now reclusive Auziere, who is not known to have remarried, has never commented publicly about his ex-wife or Macron. Tiphaine, the younger daughter he had with Brigitte, said: "My father is very well, but he wishes to remain in the most complete anonymity."

Like her siblings, Tiphaine, six years younger than Macron, gets on well with the president, who appears delighted to play step-grandfather to their children. Tiphaine even stood as one of his party's candidates in the 2017 election.

When Brigitte met Macron, her son, Sebastien, was slightly older than him and Laurence the same age. But he has managed to forge a close relationship with them.

Macron's parents, alarmed by what they viewed as an inappropriate relationship with an older woman, swiftly packed him off to Paris to complete his studies, but he continued seeing Brigitte. He blames failing the entrance exam to the elite École Normale Supérieure two years running on being "too much in love to revise".

By now an arrangement was devised that would keep family life on an even keel for everyone. Tiphaine said: "My dad worked in Lille and came home at the weekend. I was with my mother during the week and with my dad at the weekend, while Mum went to see Emmanuel." But a former colleague of André-Louis tells Bommel: "We used to see Monsieur Auziere walking up from the station on Friday with his suitcase and everyone in Amiens talked about 'poor André who was so sad'."

Brigitte married Macron in 2007 in the same town hall in the seaside resort of Le Touquet where she had married Auziere 33 years earlier. Bommel compares the wedding photographs, noting that Auziere appears to be "grimacing. Like a premonition of his misfortune to come..." The Macrons appear happy. Brigitte was 54 and Emmanuel 29, then a financial whizkid whose name was starting to appear in newspapers. Members of both families are shown in the photographs, along with one of Macron's political mentors, the former prime minister, Michel Rocard.

Another photograph of Brigitte and Macron in Le Touquet, where the couple maintain a holiday home she inherited from her parents, shows her voting two years ago. This time, she wore "a long Louis Vuitton jacket, which by itself cost far more than the dresses she wore at her two weddings". Bommel notes how she and Emmanuel clutched each other's hands and Brigitte "smiled, knowing that at 8pm that evening, she would be married to the president".

Since taking up residence at the Élysée Palace, Brigitte has become France's "Kate Middleton", Bommel writes. Everything about her, from her slim figure to her clothes and diet - she breakfasts on "two kiwis and a cup of tea" - is dissected. But however she presents herself, she will never be able to truly escape the one question most people want to know the answer to: what made a married schoolteacher in her 40s embark on an affair with a teenager younger than her own son?

The book notes that the death of one of her elder sisters and her husband in a road accident, when Brigitte was six, had a huge effect on her. "As she grew up, perhaps Brigitte deduced that she had to seize happiness before it ran away," Bommel suggests. Brigitte herself said in a 2017 interview: "If I hadn't made this choice [to leave André-Louis for Emmanuel], my life would have passed me by."

Her relationship with Macron sparked scandal, but never prompted any formal trouble. Brigitte gave up teaching four years ago, when Macron became economy minister, but last week she revealed she was planning to return to the classroom as an occasional French teacher for adults who left school without qualifications.

Bommel says Brigitte tries to "help her husband understand how ordinary people live" - a task his former aides say is a work in progress. Some advisers complain she wields too much influence.

In public, they often touch, and he is said to be unusually faithful for a French president. Men who worked with him as economy minister recall being seated at a café terrace when a bombshell blonde walked past. All heads turned, except his. Anecdotes like this have fuelled rumours that Macron is gay, something he has denied and even joked about.

Bommel says there is absolutely no evidence to suggest anything to the contrary: all those who have spent time with the Macrons say their affection for each other is genuine. The fact that their pairing makes for one of the most unlikely love stories of our time simply makes it even more compelling to watch. © The Telegraph

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