There’s a lot riding on France’s presidential election: the future of the European Union, the spread of right-wing populism, the rise of Vladimir Putin and his likeminded friends. But behind all that is the prospect of something far more intimate, if equally intriguing: that the man predicted to become France’s next president is married to his former high-school teacher, who is 24 years his senior.
The love life of Emmanuel Macron, the former economy minister expected to win Sunday’s vote, adds to a long list of conventions the candidate has broken. He split from the Socialists to start his own centrist party, En Marche!, only a year ago. He managed to beat both mainstream parties in the first round of voting, despite never holding elected office before. A win would make him the youngest president in French history.
With equal defiance, he has upended the cultural norm of men marrying younger women.
Now the couple swans around elegantly, preparing to take their place at the helm of a deeply divided country. For me, a transplant from America living in Paris, Macron’s wife, Brigitte Trogneux, represents a coagulation of everything French. The way she dresses, her sun-bleached hair, her preternaturally slender physique. She is a chocolate-company heiress from a rustbelt town, a trained school teacher who now sits front row at Louis Vuitton fashion shows. She embodies all that is intoxicating and enviable and ridiculous about French culture, impossibly elitist and socialist all at once.
For French voters, the tabloid glitz surrounding the couple can feel deeply painful and contradictory. The pair’s mix of privilege and idealism carries an unshakable arrogance reminiscent of another recent election across the pond, leaving open the possibility that this enthralling union might just be what brings Macron down.
An “incredible closeness”
Macron met Trogneux in high school at age 15. She was a 40-year-old married literature teacher and mother of three, the daughter of a bourgeois family of chocolatiers, and ran the theater club at his Jesuit school in Amiens. As the couple tells it, he pursued her doggedly, and in the 11th grade convinced her to help him write a play. The work “brought us together every Friday” and “unleashed an incredible closeness,” she told Paris Match (link in French).
After breaking the shocking news of their bond to his parents—Trogneux says the moment when the relationship turned romantic will forever be their “secret”—Macron was shipped off to an elite lycée in Paris to finish his final year. “You won’t get rid of me. I will come back and I will marry you,” he famously told her.
The distance did not break them, and eventually Trogneux left her husband and moved to Paris. “We’d call each other all the time and spend hours on the phone,” she said. “Bit by bit, he defeated all my resistance, in an amazing way, with patience.”
Their wedding in 2007 took place in the town hall of a northern beach resort, where she inherited a villa that became their second home. In a wedding speech, Macron thanked her children (one of whom was a classmate of his) for supporting them. We are “not at all a normal couple,” he said, but “a couple that exists.” They kept their marriage under wraps for eight years as he straddled investment banking and public service, before finally dipping into public together at a dinner with the king and queen of Spain.
Not known for obsessing over the sex lives of its politicians, the French press has rehashed this love story from every angle. There are the flattering takes: the couple smiling arm-in-arm in Paris Match, the fawning over her long legs and soigné style. And there is the criticism. Trogneux will be the “first grandmother of France,” a “menopausal Barbie,” the “granny to the Élysée.” Macron is a chou-chou, a teacher’s pet. And surely he is gay.
The shock of their age gap transcends cultural lines. A comment about the couple’s relationship on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, was read more than 9 million times, according to Le Figaro (link in French). “This man married a teacher who is 25-year his senior, became a grandfather at 30 and now makes Europe crazy.”
Why do we care?
Would their age gap matter if it existed in reverse? No one ever mentions the generation in age that separates Melania Trump (47) from her husband (70), despite the many complaints about her flashy style, thick accent, and borrowed ideas.
The fact is, for all the recent gains in female empowerment, we are still hopelessly prosaic when it comes to women’s age. The word “cougar,” a term frequently used for women like Trogneux, is equal parts compliment and insult. It implies a woman is good-looking enough to pass muster with younger men, but desperate enough to call her motives into question.
In Macron’s case, the fear is that Trogneux is something much greater, and more dangerous. “Not for a second does she say, ‘I cannot wear short skirts.’ Twelve-inch heels, sleeveless dresses, leather pants,” French newspaper L’Express wrote (link in French). “She dares everything.”
More than a mere gold digger or confidant, she is an inseparable part of his character. We are rapt by the moment she entered his life because it reveals her role as teacher, mother, and lover—a status only achievable with the wisdom of age. Much was made of a moment plucked from Macron’s recent biography, when his mother, Françoise Noguès, admitted that she had long ago resigned herself (link in French) to the couple’s “completely fusional love.”
We applaud this kind of bond in power couples who are close in age, or when the woman is the one who is younger. Priscilla Chan, who like her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, is 32, is credited with his “evolution and much of the couple’s philanthropic direction.” Actor George Clooney, 55, said his wife, 39-year-old Amal Clooney, a human rights lawyer, inspires him because “everything she does has actual consequence.” We obsess over the women in these relationships for good reason—they naturally wield influence over their husbands’ careers.
By the same token, there are plenty of reasons to scrutinize Trogneux’s character, and what effect it might have on the future of France. Her age isn’t one of them.