Throughout Emmanuel Macron’s political career, his wife, Brigitte Macron, has been considered his secret weapon. A savvy behind-the-scenes networker, she softens her yappy, gaffe-prone other half with a keener sense of what will play.
Anecdotes regarding her course-correcting her husband after bombed attempts to connect with the public are legion. The funnest example was reported to have rung out through the closed doors of Paris’s Elysée Palace after the president was captured on camera lecturing protesters of his unpopular unemployment-benefits reform to, essentially, go get a job. “Arrête tes conneries!” she exploded. (“Stop your bullshit!”)
Little wonder that a week before the rollout of President Macron’s least popular reform so far—a gut renovation of the country’s unbalanced pension system that would include raising the retirement age from 62 to 64—her team booked her for a national-media charm offensive.
She was there to promote the yearly rollout of Les Pièces Jaunes, a charitable-giving initiative for kids in French hospitals launched in 1989, which was spearheaded by Bernadette Chirac. Won’t you toss some spare change into a little paper box next to the cash register at the boulangerie? A perfectly gentle setup.
Macron is diplomatic when she speaks to the country through the mass media, usually taking the perspective of a fellow citizen who hears kitchen-table concerns and shares them with her very powerful husband. Which is funny because, behind the scenes, she is acknowledged to be one of her husband’s most powerful policy advisers, a chooser of key ministers.
Journalists know this, and when they get their hands on Madame Macron, as they seldom do, they endeavor to throw out red-meat questions to get her to bite.
And they should, because occasionally she nibbles, especially on education, where she has made school bullying a pet cause. (It should be noted she was a teacher herself, including of her husband—when he was in high school—when they first started their relationship.) Just a month and a half ago, the cover of the national newsweekly L’Obs asked, Brigitte Macron: Ministre de l’Education? But still, if only to divert attention from the pension reform that would soon see more than a million people take to the streets in protest, surely now she could step out again.
A TV soundstage is a safe space for Brigitte until it isn’t. For an interview on the national news channel TF1, in a prole-ish olive corduroy blazer rather than the usual sleek Vuitton, and again at a roundtable with the national broadsheet Le Parisien, and then in the pages of a just-launched national women’s magazine, Macron stepped out a lot, on concrete policy, including pedagogy, cell phones, and uniforms in public schools. (On that last one, to the horror of most, she’s in favor. “A simple outfit, not a sad one,” she clarified.) She praised what she called the comparatively strong state of French hospitals, gaslighting the French public over an ongoing budget-and-staffing crisis so dire that her husband, for the optics, gave his annual New Year’s speech from a suburban hospital.
She even spoke to the retirement reform. Young people tell her they’re afraid there won’t be a pension for them at all. She also shared what Macron eats for breakfast—some oranges, a kiwi, some fromage frais—and complimented his level of adorableness. But the damage was done.
Opposition politicians were on cue with their outrage: What gives the unelected wife the right to speak for the French? went the ubiquitous line. They noted that uniforms, in particular, are against the policy of her husband’s minister of education, Pap Ndiaye, and that the very day she spoke out, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party put a uniforms motion up for a vote in the Assemblée Nationale. It failed, but Le Pen took care to mention how much she appreciated the support of Madame Macron. The R.N. are treated by other parties in the French Parliament as if they were rotting fish. Anything that’s seen to make common cause with them is political poison.
A TV soundstage is a safe space for Brigitte until it isn’t.
So if the idea was to change the subject from the discontented state of the country’s retirees to the generosity of French social solidarity via an anodyne spare-change initiative, well, maybe she should have stuck to Les Pièces Jaunes. Emmanuel Macron was said to have exploded in a Cabinet meeting when questioned about uniforms a few days later. (Given that he appointed Ndiaye and hasn’t publicly countermanded him, it’s safe to assume that he’s against them.)
It’s incredible that Brigitte Macron had the successful run she did for so long. Americans may disagree on a First Lady’s holiday décor or whether she wants us to eat salad, but we don’t much question the role itself. In France, where expensively dressed, unelected people sounding off inside gilt palaces are a centuries-old national trigger, the public role of the president’s spouse is not a settled question. She’s supposed to be at his side occasionally? Host parties?
Carla Bruni, married to Nicolas Sarkozy, cut a pop-folk album, and even toured on it a little, and nobody minded. Then again, Danielle Mitterrand openly swooned over Fidel Castro, and some people really did mind. The line is fuzzy and ever moving because French politicians like it that way. (Need we remind you that treating women as punching bags works across the party spectrum?)
When Emmanuel Macron was elected in 2017, he even tried to legally codify the role: La Première Dame would have no pay, no operating expenses, but a couple of ministerial liaisons and assistants, as they typically have. It was no change to the current norms, but the effort clunked in the legislature.
Still, he had to make some effort, as everyone knew that Brigitte was going to be a big presence, possibly the closest the French could get to their own Hillary Clinton. His significant other since he was 17, she was the one greasing the social wheels to find him a spot in banking.
She threw legendary home-cooked dinners for political bigwigs and captains of industry in their apartment in the 15th Arrondissement. She was the one getting close to Bernard Arnault when she taught at his grandkids’ private lycée in the tony 16th. People were fascinated by their love story and the 25-year difference in their ages. They became social animals. She was the one who pushed him to run for president in 2017. She saw the board from the beginning and played it perfectly.
But you can win for only so long. By Macron’s second term, there were whispers that Brigitte was going to take a step back. She was losing internal battles on choosing a prime minister. (Her choice, Catherine Vautrin, was overruled at the last minute in favor of Élisabeth Borne.) Her beloved education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, got the axe, and close aides were leaving to return to jobs in culture and the private sector.
If Macron is to have a legacy, since Ukraine has torpedoed his attempts to establish an E.U. military, rationalizing the pension system is his best chance. However, the social pushback has been so strong that reforms have eluded every other modern French president who has tried.
Last week, the law was finally put to the parliament, and concessions are already being signaled. Macron doesn’t want to force it through with sketchy parliamentary maneuvers, but he may have to. If he’s not already out of cards, he’s at a disadvantage: the ace up his sleeve seems to have fallen out.
Alexandra Marshall is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. A contributor to W, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, and Travel + Leisure, she recently relocated from Paris to Le Perche