Friday 23 February 2018

Meet France's thoroughly modern first lady

Ex-teacher Brigitte Trogneux is so popular, she risks eclipsing France's youngest president since ­Napoleon

Ambition: Emmanuel and Brigitte during the election campaign
Ambition: Emmanuel and Brigitte during the election campaign

Eleanor Steafel

Thirty-nine-year-old Emmanuel Macron is France's youngest president since Napoleon and, to many, "France's answer to JFK".

Beside him through it all is the woman who has been his greatest champion since he was a schoolboy: his wife and former teacher, Brigitte Trogneux.

In 1993, after Macron's star turn in a school play, Trogneux planted a tender kiss on the cheek of 15-year-old Macron in front of the parents and pupils at a private Jesuit school in Amiens. Two years later, he declared his intention to marry her.

Last month, Trogneux was on stage again in Paris, blowing kisses to a roaring crowd, as it was announced that her husband - some 24 years her junior, and leader of France's progressive En March movement - had beaten the country's two long-established main parties to join Marine Le Pen in the final round of the presidential election.

The couple waved and grinned broadly for the cameras, before giving the crowd the photo opportunity they wanted - a good, old-fashioned French kiss.

A real-life drama

Dressed in an elegant pale grey suit, which showed off her impressive tan, with her blonde hair expertly coiffed, the woman who would go on to become France's next first lady looked every inch the part.

Clever and stylish, with sparkling blue eyes and a Hollywood smile to match her husband's, Mme Trogneux - at 64, a mother-of-three and grandmother-of-seven - is the picture of a modern first lady. She is also the second oldest, behind Bernadette Chirac.

Add to that the fact that Brigitte divorced the father of her three children to be with Macron, and you have all the makings of some classic real-life French political drama.

Typically, though, the quasi-scandalous backdrop of their marriage is something the rest of the world has made a great deal more fuss about than the French themselves.

When it comes to what goes on behind closed doors, the French are, as in most areas of life, altogether cooler about it than the rest of us.

What's more, the French press has been historically unwilling to delve into the private lives of its ruling class. Former president François Mitterand had an affair for 32 years, which produced an illegitimate daughter (and possibly a son from another relationship, too), but such matters were written about in French newspapers only after his death.

Current president François Hollande parted ways with his mistress and de facto first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, in 2014 after it was revealed that he had also been having an affair with Julie Gayet, an actress 18 years his junior.

A media glitch

Macron did come under fire following his first-round win - but for celebrating too lavishly when he hosted a glitzy dinner for his supporters. Which goes to show that, in France, it is still more controversial to be flash than to marry your schoolteacher.

The couple have, nevertheless, managed to pique the interest of the French press. Mme Trogneux gave a somewhat regrettable interview to Paris Match last year in which she let in some light on the early days of their relationship. She was quoted saying: "At the age of 17, Emmanuel said to me: 'Whatever you do, I will marry you!'"

The interview was quickly brushed off by the politician's camp, with Macron saying: "My wife doesn't understand the media. She regrets it profoundly. It was a mistake, a mistake we both made. My relationship, my family, it's what I care about the most, there is no strategy to exhibit them, it is without a doubt a blunder. I take full responsibility and it won't be something we will be repeating."

So why are we intrigued by her? Is it the deliciously controversial circumstances of their relationship? Is it because Macron himself has pledged to carve out an official role for her in his administration? Or is it simply because of her magnificent "forme olympique", as was described by one French magazine?

Written in the stars

As far as Macron's biographer is concerned, the couple's relationship was written in the stars in a rather uncomfortably Freudian way. The young Emmanuel enjoyed a provincial, bourgeois family life, with parents who were both doctors and worked a lot, and it was his grandmother, Manette, who was his biggest influence growing up.

Manette, also a teacher, was "demanding and determined" and "opened the door to reading and culture for him", writes Anne Fulda. He would call her every night, and says of her: "She helped me believe in my political destiny".

So, well before he married his own teacher, clever, cultured women were a huge influence in the young Macron's life.

"He wasn't like the others," Trogneux told a French documentary last year. "He wasn't a teenager. He had a relationship of equals with other adults."

At 16, Macron, who as a young man wanted to be a novelist, left his prestigious but provincial school to finish his education in Paris, vowing to marry his former teacher.

"We'd call each other all the time and spend hours on the phone," she remembered. "Bit by bit, he defeated all my resistance, in an amazing way, with patience."

A more public relationship

And sure enough, Trogneux - still married, and with three children (her eldest daughter, Laurence, is the same age as Macron, and was his classmate) - left her husband and began a relationship with her former pupil, marrying him in 2007.

For years, they avoided the public eye, presumably aware that their unconventional marriage risked overshadowing Emmanuel's lofty political plans. But since launching his presidential bid last year, having previously served for two years as industry minister in François Hollande's unpopular socialist government, something has shifted.

His biographer told the BBC: "He wants to give the idea that, if he was able to seduce a woman 24 years his senior and a mother-of-three's children, in a small provincial town, without opprobrium and mockery, he can conquer France in the same way."

As he beat Le Pen, it was with Trogneux by his side. She has been quoted as saying she is "the president of his fan club", and is often seen attending high-level meetings with him; at his campaign launch, she could be seen taking notes in the front row. As France's first lady, and with her husband's blessing, she will play a big role in helping him realise his dreams to revitalise the country.

A cool sense of style

Even more thrilling for some is how Trogneux has turned heads with what Vogue magazine described as her "chic-bobo aesthetic". With her slim-cut navy tailoring, low-heeled shoes, and immaculately highlighted but not overly coiffed hair, she is the quintessential femme d'un certain âge, with a dignified but cool sense of style, which the French respect immeasurably.

Why did everyone like Carla Bruni-Sarkozy? Because, unlike her husband with his distinctly dodgy platform shoes, she looked wonderful in a grey Christian Dior suit and a pair of Louboutins.

Delphine de Canecaude, a Paris-based art director, told L'Express magazine: "She's rock'n'roll. Not for a second does she say, 'I'm 64, so I cannot wear short skirts.' Twelve-inch heels, sleeveless dresses, leather trousers, she dares everything. She is a mega wonder woman."

But, as Vogue's fashion features editor points out, she also displays a degree of deference to the "lynchpins of the French fashion industry", with her array of Louis Vuitton Capucines bags, and her regular appearances on the front row at all the biggest fashion shows.

In the run up to the French election, Trogneux was by Macron's side all the way. "She will have the role that she always had with me," he told French radio station RTL. "She will not be hidden, because she shared my life, because her opinion is important, and because the presidential position carries something of a personal dimension.

"She has always been by my side; she's my equilibrium."

Macron had better watch out that the brilliant Brigitte doesn't soon eclipse him altogether.

The new first couple of France


Born: April 13, 1953 (age 64)

Occupation: Teacher

Family: Married to French president and former minister Emmanuel Macron

Media: The French media has praised Trogneux for her "cool attitude" and "wonderwoman" look

Relationship with Macron: Trogneux and Emmanuel Macron met when she was his literature teacher at a private school in Amiens. They developed a close relationship and stayed in touch after Macron left, eventually marrying in 2007 and moving in together along with Trogneux's three children


Born: December 21, 1977 (age 39)

Previous role: French Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs

Party: En Marche! (On the Move). In August 2016, Macron quit the government to form a centrist party and launch a presidential bid as an outsider. On May 7, Emmanuel Macron beat opponent Marine Le Pen to become the youngest president of France in the Fifth Republic's history.

Political career:

2012-2014: Head of the Economy and Finances Division

2012-2014: Deputy Secretary-General of the Presidency

2014-2016: Minister of the Economy, Industry and Digital Affairs

2017: Presidential candidate for the En Marche! party

2017: Elected France's youngest head of state since Napoleon, with 66.1pc of the vote against 33.9pc for far-right leader Marine Le Pen

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