French first lady Brigitte Macron turns 70 on Thursday, but don’t expect her to talk about it.
“Wait for April 13, 2023 when I’m going to be 70,” she told women’s lifestyle magazine S in January with barely disguised dread about the coming flood of news articles. “You’re going to hear about it, I’m sure.
“I won’t read a thing that day.”
Brigitte, who has three children from a previous marriage, has spent decades being reminded of the 25-year age gap between her and her husband, whom she met when he was a pupil and she was a teacher at a private school in northeast France.
Their marriage was a sensation when Emmanuel Macron emerged in the public eye — first as a minister, then as a presidential candidate in 2016 — with many questioning whether such an unusual couple could be authentic.
Though their affectionate and close relationship has since won over sceptics, public interest in the norm-bending first couple — and references to Brigitte’s age — never let up.
“I’ve never promoted our couple: it exists but you can’t explain it,” she continued in her interview with S.
“Obviously it’s easier to be in the same age range,” she added.
– ‘Vase of flowers’ –
Her office declined to say what she had planned for her landmark birthday when contacted by AFP.
The first lady returned on Wednesday evening from a two-day state visit to the Netherlands with her husband that saw her attend a state banquet hosted by the Dutch king and tour Anne Frank’s house with the queen.
She once spoke about the risk of appearing like a decorative “vase of flowers” during the staged photo ops and ceremonial duties of such occasions.
Always a reluctant political wife, she reportedly discouraged her husband from entering public life in the first place and remained notably lukewarm about his bid for a second term in April last year.
During 2018 anti-Macron demonstrations by so-called “Yellow Vest” protesters, the literature and theatre lover was personally targeted, and she suffered insulting comments at the hands of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and his cabinet.
“Did you see my face on re-election night?” she told Le Point magazine recently, referring to her stiff performance as her husband celebrated winning another five years in power.
When not representing France abroad, she has thrown herself into charity work at home, backed by a small team operating from their own space in the presidential palace.
Most of her campaign issues are linked to her former career as a teacher — bullying in schools, childhood autism, mental health and social media — but they are also classic choices.
“In terms of her activities, she is very traditional in her approach,” Robert Schneider, the author of a French-language book on presidents’ wives, “First Ladies”, told AFP.
Born into a well-to-do provincial family — her father ran a chocolate shop in her hometown Amiens — Brigitte is widely thought to be more conservative than her husband and is on friendly terms with right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.
“At the start there were two sides to her: a free woman who had broken social conventions (through her marriage)… and the other that was conventional: a provincial bourgeoise, Catholic, well brought up, smartly dressed, who votes to the right,” Schneider added.
“Today it’s the second side of her that dominates.”
– Ageing secrets –
Her influence on policy is a subject of unending speculation in France.
She is widely used to pass messages on to her husband from advisers and allies, and serves as a sounding board for his ideas.
As his former drama teacher, Brigitte also takes a keen interest in Macron’s public speeches and addresses, coaching him on enunciation and delivery.
“I’ve never grabbed him to say ‘do this or do that’,” she told Le Monde newspaper in 2021. “But he always asks me what I think, as he does with (chief of staff) Alexis Kohler. After, he does what he wants.”
Naturally talkative, outgoing and sociable, Brigitte has battled to curb her tendency to be frank and direct in public.
“I pay a lot more attention to what I say… because it doesn’t just involve me,” she told the TF1 channel in January. “I’d like to have a lot more freedom to speak.”
Asked about her secret for defying the years, Brigitte outlined her daily routine.
“I do half an hour of sport a day — on my own, without a coach — I eat a balanced diet and I spend time writing and reading,” she told S magazine.
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