PARIS — When French voters are asked to describe the centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, age appears to be a defining characteristic in several ways. The 39-year-old Macron could become the youngest contemporary French president. He would also be accompanied into the Élysée Palace by his wife, Brigitte, who is 24 years older than he is.
Both would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented.
Since Macron founded his own political movement about one year ago, his wife has rapidly adapted to the sudden prospect of becoming the next first lady of France after spending much of her life as a high school teacher.
She had few other choices, given the rather intense interest in the private lives of presidential candidates in France. French voters, it appears, like some drama.
The unusual relationship between Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron has plenty of that to offer. Born as Brigitte Marie-Claude Trogneux, the now 64-year-old is the daughter of a family of chocolatiers who are known for their Amiens macaroons, a local type of confectionery that sounds remarkably similar to the name of the current presidential candidate (and is distinct from the typical French macaron).
The two first met when Macron was 15 years old at the high school in Amiens where then-Brigitte Trogneux taught a French and a theater class.
“Whatever you do, I'll marry you!” Macron told her there. Despite reports that the 15-year-old even kissed his then-teacher on the cheek during a theater play, few voters seem to care. Macron has drawn wide support from all sides of the political spectrum, and even supporters of other candidates now say that the details of their relationship should not impact voters' decision-making process. They point out that many other male world leaders (one of them living in D.C.) have married much younger women, without causing a national debate.
But it is also true that when it comes to their political leaders, the French are more tolerant than others.
Former president Nicolas Sarkozy separated from his ex-wife, Cécilia Attias, while in office to marry the former model Carla Bruni. Elsewhere, this would have caused an uproar, but the French speculated that Sarkozy had actually initiated the separation to distract from other political challenges.
When his successor, François Hollande, separated from his partner, Valerie Trierweiler, after an affair with an actress was made public by a magazine, many French similarly shrugged their shoulders.
Despite a more tolerant French attitude, Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron long kept their relationship a secret. Against all likelihood, the romance continued after their first encounter, and Brigitte Trogneux eventually separated from her husband with whom she has three children.
In the following decades, as Macron rose from being an investment banker to economics minister, their relationship was often put under scrutiny and “misunderstood by many,” as the top-politician himself has said. In 2007, the two married but refrained from talking about it to most people. It took eight more years until the two made their first public appearance during a dinner with King Felipe of Spain and his wife.
The intense election campaign of the last year has put an end to the secrecy. Almost everyone in France is aware of the details of their love story by now.
When Macron declared himself the winner of the first round of the election on Sunday, he praised his wife several times. His supporters abruptly started to cheer and applaud, waving French flags in her direction as she listened from the side of the stage.
To his supporters, Brigitte Macron has become an essential part of the campaign — not only as a possible future first lady but also as an organizer who is one of the masterminds behind the movement's rise.
The French press has taken note. “His best ally?” political magazine L'Express asked recently, referring to Brigitte Macron.
According to Emmanuel Macron, that might well be the case. And yet, his unusual love life has not made his already challenging campaign much easier. On social media, critics of the presidential front-runner frequently refer to his wife using the term “cougar” — a not exactly flattering word that describes older women seeking relationships with younger men.
In February, Macron also had to deny rumors that spread on social media that he was having a homosexual affair with the director of a leading French radio station.
“I have never had anything to hide,” he said in a statement, jokingly referring to the secrecy that had long overshadowed the relationship with his wife.