At first, the French were charmed by Brigitte Macron, the 64-year-old wife — and former high school teacher — of France’s new president, 23 years her junior.
By Monday, about 200,000 people had signed an online petition against Brigitte Macron being given an official role, a repeated desire of her husband. The petition is the latest blow to the president's image, whose approval ratings have continued to fall over his dogged refusal to back down on budget cuts.
Although elected in a landslide in May, only 36 percent of French people now approve of their president, according to recent polls.
“There is no reason for the wife of the head of state to get a budget out of public funds,” reads the petition’s text, written by Thierry Paul Valette, a writer, artist and activist.
Valette did not respond to a request for comment Monday.
“We fiercely denounce all the sexist attacks against Brigitte Macron, and we do not in any way seek to question her competence. But in a time of moralizing French public life … we cannot sanction the creation of a special status for the spouse of President Macron.”
During the presidential campaign earlier this year, Emmanuel Macron frequently said that he wanted his wife to have an official, defined status as first lady — along with “a fully public role.”
“I want there to be a defined role for her, and I will ask for a proposal to be presented on how to proceed in that regard,” he said on the campaign trail.
In an arrangement that Macron described then as a “kind of French hypocrisy,” the spouses of presidents do receive security guards, office space and a small staff — all of which is paid from the budget of the Elysee Palace.
By contrast, creating any kind of official position for Brigitte Macron would require an additional and separate allotment of public funds.
The controversy has erupted in part because Macron has made “moralizing public life” such a central priority of his young administration.
“Today, the principal danger to democracy is the persistence of breaches of honesty among politicians whose behavior is unworthy of the position of representative of the people,” read his campaign platform. A public spending scandal took down the campaign of François Fillon, one of Macron’s right-wing opponents in the election, who was accused of siphoning nearly 900,000 euros in public funds to pay his wife and children for jobs they did not do.
The other issue is optics. Since the election, Macron has alarmed some in France by an embrace of what critics have called monarchical tendencies. He rarely speaks to journalists and prefers to deliver addresses in the hallowed halls of Versailles, a place deeply associated with absolute monarchy. He has also shown an unwillingness to suffer critics. As he told troops in July, in the throes of a public dispute over military spending cuts, “I am your boss. … I need no pressure and no commentary.”
This, for many signatories of the petition, was the real offense behind Macron’s desire to bestow on his wife an official position, especially one with a budget of its own.
Macron's official proposal on the matter is expected in the fall.