A nation’s official residence might not perfectly reflect its character, but there is a relationship. As the world started going on lockdown this spring, the White House, which was built partially by slaves, began breaking ground on Melania Trump’s new tennis pavilion. Across the Atlantic in France, at the Élysée Palace, originally built as an aristocratic party pad, a socially distant Brigitte Macron now runs the Hospitals of Paris–Hospitals of France Foundation, where she organizes food delivery and accepts donations on behalf of the hospitals and retirement homes whose budgets her husband’s government is trying to hobble. Nobody’s perfect.
When our politics go spectacularly awry, it’s always fun to check in on the French. Our democratic dark mirror is a swinging, Latin-Catholic what-if reminder that the revolutionary ideals of the Enlightenment took many forms. They have a different word for everything over there, and different political instincts too.
A Loosening of Standards
Jean Garrigues, a professor of history at the University of Orléans and head of the French Parliamentary and Political Committee, is the author of a spicy book, Une Histoire Érotique de l’Élysée, a deep dive into the role of eros in the careers of French heads of state, from the 18th century to today, as seen through the walls of the presidential palace. It used to be that “political power was indissociable from the power of seduction and conquest,” he explains, earning “a kind of admiration of the French at which president had the prettiest, or even most famous, mistress.”
Infidelities were part of the fun, whether with Belle Époque courtesans, movie stars, or a terrifyingly large number of female journalists on the Élysée beat. (Garrigues writes of the newsmagazine L’Express sending a troika of female reporters to the palace in the 1970s. “You’re going to make them talk,” said the paper’s dashing owner, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber.)
Infidelities were part of the fun, whether with Belle Époque courtesans, movie stars, or a terrifyingly large number of female journalists on the Élysée beat.
Today we have to re-write the stereotypes. Where Americans once expected their leaders to be moral exemplars and stand-up family men, standards are clearly slipping. Meanwhile, the French once yearned for poet cocksmen at the top of their political heap, but after a decade of sex scandals, starting with Nicolas Sarkozy and through Dominique Strauss-Kahn and François Hollande, under Emmanuel Macron the partouze is over.
Advances in Communications
Garrigues notes that, unlike in America, where TV became a political medium under J.F.K., it wasn’t a big factor in French presidential politics until the dawn of the 21st century, when Nicolas Sarkozy appeared on the scene and invited the cameras in to watch him play man of the people. Coincidentally or not, Sarkozy was also the first French president to be cuckolded by his wife, Cecilia, who left him for her lover, Richard Attias, just months into his first and only term. Many speculated at the time that Sarkozy’s fast and furious courtship of Carla Bruni, one of the most famous man-eaters in modern French history, was a ploy to return to old codes of virility. The Bruni-Sarkozys, though, have had the last laugh there: they’re still very much in love, if the “presse pipol” is to be believed. (But should it be? When Paris Match reported on Cecilia’s stepping out, Sarkozy allegedly managed to topple its then editor in chief, Alain Genestar.)
“The age of hyper-communication has brought French presidents closer to the people, so there’s no longer fascination and a respect for their mystery,” Garrigues says. What better example than the ignominious end of François Hollande’s presidency, which crashed and burned after he got papped on the back of a scooter—the back of a scooter!—going to see his actress girlfriend, Julie Gayet. You know, the one with whom he was stepping out on the “First Girlfriend,” Valérie Trierweiler, a journalist who had been covering the presidential race until her years-long affair with Hollande was revealed and she moved into the Élysée part-time. (La honte!) Before that, Hollande had been “officially” in a couple with Ségolène Royal, a former candidate for president herself, and the mother of his four children. (The French could sort of tolerate the first infidelity. But a second one? And, really, on the back of a scooter?)
Many speculated at the time that Sarkozy’s fast and furious courtship of Carla Bruni, one of the most famous man-eaters in modern French history, was a ploy to return to old codes of virility.
“We let French presidents get away with a lot less today,” says Garrigues. “Not just in matters of seduction. They have a much more negative image than they used to. We demand more rigor and integrity from them,” both fiscally and personally, he says.
The December-May Relationship
Now, in a distastefully American fashion, the president needs to reflect the country, not rule it from above. For Garrigues, one reason the Macron couple worked, electorally speaking, is that “the rapport between men and women has happily evolved, and that old story of the old man with a very young conquest is something people can’t stand anymore.” In the case of the Macrons, it was Brigitte, after all, who was the older seducer of the much younger Emmanuel. Brigitte Macron’s visibly active role as her husband’s first political adviser is brand new for the French as well, who never had an official role for the First Lady, but whose own home lives are starting to experience some sharing of power.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Garrigues also notes that the Macrons likely suffered worse at the hands of the country’s considerable reactionary forces for the very same reason. “The gilets jaunes were really hostile to Brigitte Macron, with a traditionalist defiance against this couple that transgressed the codes.”
Perhaps for obvious reasons, Garrigues’s study of French political power is essentially gendered. Could there even be a model for une présidente? After all, Marine Le Pen was once considered a contender for the top job, even if the thought of her achieving it was more of a nightmare than an aspiration for the majority of the country. “I have a lot of reservations there,” Garrigues says, “when we see how few women in business are in powerful posts, and how so many women still do the majority of the housework and rearing of the family. I don’t think we’re there yet, unfortunately.”
Yeah, well, us neither.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL based in Paris