Older woman who could be la première dame
Emmanuel Macron’s wife is 24 years his senior. Do the French care about the age gap?
There’s a sudden spring in every older Frenchwoman’s step. Being over 60 was never an obstacle to being attractive. In France there is no age limit to wearing matching underwear. Yet here is confirmation, if confirmation were needed, that you can achieve anything as a grandmother, even becoming the country’s first lady.
France is an extremely sexist society. You only have to look at how the language is structured to see that. A group of men and women in a room become grammatically masculine. But is it ageist? Apparently not. Judgmental? It doesn’t look like it.
On Sunday the country went to the polls in what has been described as the most important election for decades. Two of the main candidates, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, were prepared to take France out of Europe. The big winner in the first round was Emmanuel Macron, the liberal leader of his party, En Marche!, whose wife is, at 64, 24 years his senior.
Macron met Brigitte Trogneux at school, but this was no ordinary high-school romance. She was his drama teacher, a married mother of three. The relationship caused a scandal in Amiens, where they both lived. Eventually Macron convinced Trogneux to leave her husband and marry him.
It is easy to see what attracted the young Macron to his teacher. A friend of mine whose children were at the school that Brigitte Trogneux (she kept her maiden name) went on to teach at in Paris remembers vividly the first time she met her. “We were all in a classroom and this stunning woman walked in wearing tight leather trousers and stilettos and introduced herself as the Latin teacher. I have no idea at all what she said, I was just utterly mesmerised. St Louis de Gonzague is not the kind of school where teachers wear leather trousers. But she looked incredible.”
Trogneux has since slightly toned down her look, making it more polished, although she is still rather more outré than most grandmothers. She is an extremely attractive woman with a mop of blond hair and a smiley, open face. In fact, she looks like Brigitte Bardot ought to look. She is a very glamorous dresser, wearing bold colours and daring cuts. On election day she was supremely elegant in grey and black. She still wears leather trousers; she was spotted in a pair at the Louis Vuitton autumn/winter show last year. “She has the most incredible legs that seem to go on for ever,” says Julie, an artist living in the south of France. “She looks more like a former model than a retired schoolteacher.”
Macron and Trogneux are inseparable. As one French newspaper summed up: “Family and friends were abandoned, Brigitte remained.”
And now it looks as if she will become France’s first lady after her husband won 23.75 per cent of the votes in the first round against Le Pen’s 21.53 per cent, sending them both through to the second round. It seems unlikely that Le Pen will win the second round on May 7 — most commentators assume that those who didn’t vote for her in the first round will switch to Macron to stop the National Front from gaining power.
The mood is pretty sanguine. Most of the French are not too upset by this man and his “cougar”, as some refer to her. “Better to have an old wife than a wife with a fake job we taxpayers are paying for,” says Thierry, who owns a gardening business in southern France. He is referring to the presidential candidate François Fillon, whose wife and children were being paid to do jobs that didn’t exist. “Personally I voted for the left-wing candidate, but here in France it doesn’t matter if they’re left or right — nothing changes. They all have their fingers in the jam.”
And what does he think about Macron’s much older wife? Thierry gives a classic Gallic shrug. “À chacun ses goûts,” he says. “You make good soup in old pots.” He pauses and laughs. “With young carrots!”
Jean-Luc, a civil servant living in Annecy, thinks the retired provincial schoolteacher will be a good influence on a man who would be the country’s youngest president to date. “Macron will gain maturity with an older woman,” he says.
French women are not renowned for their female solidarity. In a country where more people have affairs than don’t, female friends are few and far between. But Trogneux seems to have united the French female population, particularly those over 40, in a way never seen before.
The former Chanel muse and French supermodel Inès de la Fressange is optimistic about a future with Macron, in no small part because of his wife. “At a time when populism, fascist ideas, homophobia, anti-feminism and anti-ecologist thinking are growing in many countries, France is showing her individualism,” she says. “This is a great image to give the world. Of course someone who is really in love, is faithful to his wife and has had to fight for his love is a good thing. The fact that she is older than him shows his character, his personality and his courage. Liberté, égalité, fraternité et féminité! Instead of Brexit, we will have an open mind.”
“It is the woman behind the man who counts,” says Alexandra, a graphic designer who lives just outside Paris. “She’s straightforward and honest. If France could vote for the other halves she would win hands down. She’s fabulous.”
Paul, a lawyer from Lyons, disagrees. He had no idea that Trogneux is 24 years older than Macron and was appalled when I told him. “That won’t work,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. I point out that Donald Trump is exactly 24 years older than Melania, and no one seems bothered by that. “Ah but that’s different,” comes the response.
There are of course French women who share Paul’s scepticism. “I zoomed in on her arms and those wrinkles — ugh,” says Natalie, an advertising executive who lives in Bordeaux. “I mean, that’s fine if your husband is 65, but at 39? Can he really find that enticing? I just don’t get it.”
Chantal, a French friend who lives in Montpellier, questions the man behind the marriage. “One wonders, when a man goes for a woman who is so much older, what he is trying to avoid?” she asks. “Children? Sex?”
“What do you expect from a man who got into politics through the back door?” says Jean-Luc, in a reference to Macron avoiding the primary elections.
He may have gone in through the back door, but he will soon be taking centre stage. Only the most dramatic of second-round upsets will mean that Macron and his wife don’t move into the Élysée Palace.
The question remains: what role will the former drama teacher play?
Helena Frith Powell is the author of Two Lipsticks and a Lover, published by Arrow Books
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018