March 22, 2023

Brigitte Macron’s interviews on the occasion of the Yellow Pieces operation raise a recurring question: the vague contours of the status of the president’s wife, and the specificity of the French model of the first lady.

We cannot say that it haunted the sets during the first five-year term. But lately, it lends itself to the game of all types of media, from Parisian to 8 p.m. of TF1, from the studio of the great animators competition for the yellow coinsairing on RTL this Wednesday. His presence exploded the audience for Gilles Bouleau’s show, with a peak of 5.4 million viewers.

On Twitter, many criticized the journalists who received it for inventing this status of first lady, in a fake reproduction of the American model. By maintaining this cultural distinction, commentators seek to minimize the Brigitte Macron’s speeches and the echo we should leave him.


What does the First Lady of France do on television?Asks Clémentine Autain (LFI) at the microphone of Apolline de Malherbe, before answering her own question: “She sends a message by taking advantage of her notoriety and her place.“For the Insoumise, without a democratic mandate, the wife of Emmanuel Macron has no legitimate hearing time. “VSIt’s not charity we want, it’s social justice, it’s not the same thing at all“, hammered Clémentine Autain again. For her, Brigitte Macron uses airtime dedicated to public debate by advocating charity, while, on the issue of hospitals, the rebellious MP considers it preferable to “talking about her husband’s politics“.

In fact, the first lady has no role determined by the Constitution. It was also a promise of Emmanuel Macron during his first campaign in 2017: to delimit the status of the president’s spouse, in order, according to him, to put an end to a “form of hypocrisy“. The question was asked after his election with the “law on confidence in politics and moralization of public life», in September 2017, which concerns the collaborators of elected officials and ministers, and anticipates in particular possible conflicts of interest.

At the time, the France Insoumise parliamentary group had proposed bringing an amendment aimed at strictly preventing any possible abuse of this position : “Any spouse, cohabiting partner and concubine of members of the Government, of the President of the Republic, of parliamentarians and of the territorial authority (…) cannot benefit from public financial and human resources, other than those relating to housing common function possibly held, or those relating to the guarantee of their protection and safety. In addition to financial issues, there was a redefinition of the symbolic role of the first lady : “The statuses of spouse, cohabiting partner and concubine mentioned in I cannot under any circumstances make it possible to represent in a public manner, official or not, the functions of the member of the Government, of the President of the Republic, of parliamentarians or of the territorial authority concerned”.

Rejected, the amendment of the Insoumis never saw the light of day. Emmanuel Macron’s desire for clarification materialized in a charter, available on the Élysée website. She specifies “preempted rolesfor the President’s spouse and the transparency of the resources allocated to him. We also find the list of concerns that are those of the first ladies of the Vth Republic: education, health, culture and disability. Social commitments which are added to its function of official representation on the international scene, and to its management of the daily life of the “first house in France», the Elysée. Every month, finally, the Élysée publishes a detailed official report of the visits made by the first lady.

Brigitte Macron at the national launch of Operation Yellow Pieces, in Nice, January 11, 2023. Valery HACHE / AFP

Americanization lawsuit

Brigitte Macron is indeed heir to a republican tradition: from Yvonne de Gaulle to Bernadette Chirac, the wives of presidents have appropriated their position, have developed the social fiber expected of their function, and have even been able to acquire a taste for politics.

According to historian Régine Torrent, specialist in contemporary American history, and author of First Ladies – From Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton (published in 2017 by Racine editions), the expression “first lady» dates from 1935. It is indeed an American journalistic creation, « on the occasion of a trip to the United States by Marguerite Lebrun, wife of the last president of the IVth Republic. The American press greatly appreciates this discreet figure alongside the president, and refers to her as the “French first lady”, in the text. “. The expression will only really be used from the second term of President Chirac.

In the United States, it is true that the figure of the First Lady is more marked. “Lamericans have a term unthinkable with us: the “ladyship”, which designates the period of “exercise” of the first lady, her mandate in a way“recalls the specialist, “It is the State Department that offers her her missions, and she has a cabinet of about fifteen people, compared to two in France. During the election campaign, she waves the flags and very often answers questions.Before her husband was president, she often served as his secretary. Régine Torrent recalls the role assumed by the wife of Lyndon B. Johnson, “Lady Bird Johnson“, nicknamed “foreign ministerfor his active participation in diplomatic events.

On a more symbolic register, it bears the image of the presidential couple, and can soften it. Barbara Bush, wife of George HW Bush was, according to the historian, “the popular figure of a term that was not“.

In short: whether we like her or not, she occupies a real role in the United States, and the first French lady has a “leeway comparable to mobile borders“. And if the current collective imagination considers that the first lady is a model purely imported from the United States, “ he has a short memory“, for the specialist.

Cautious and consensual

As for the political weight of Brigitte Macron’s statements, it is perhaps, according to Régine Torrent, to maintain a balance between two observations. The audience that his opinion will find on wearing the uniform, for example, perhaps falls moreof the media model which is ours: of the passion for commentary and a form of peopolization of politics.»

Still, the tone used by the first lady is relatively “careful and consensual“. If asked about it, she gladly talks about inflation, purchasing power, pension reform, cost of medical care, school bullying…”But always in the mode of observation, without taking a clear-cut position “, underlines the historian. And when asked in more detail about the state of the hospitals, she cuts short: “On the hospital in France, I would not allow myself to comment. “And to engage on remarks that are more human than systemic, emotional than political: of those she meets, she retains”concern for doing well» and the impossibility sometimes to get there until the end… A human knowledge, «ground“, this is what she wants to bring to the image of the presidential couple. “I am a walker“, she summarizes on TF1, or”a sensor of the president, among many others“, she nuances on RTL.

By maintaining herself on social issues, she maintains her position on a kind of ridge line, “political without really being“, synthesizes Régine Torrent, which corresponds to her duty of reserve. How not to think then of the wife of President Harry S. Truman, Bess Truman who systematically replied “No commentto the microphones held out to him to hear his opinion?

Customary law persists

A quick historical perspective puts into perspective, for the specialist, the importanceillegitimate” that the media has given to the first lady in recent days. “It was easy to become indignant at the Americanization of French political life. The presidentialist model of the Fifth Republic produced a female counterpart to the great figure: she supports the representation of the president, and it is perhaps more the evolution of the media that has distorted the legitimate echo chamber of her takeovers. word.»

As Joëlle Chevé, author of The feminine Élysée from the 2nd to the 5th Republic, between duty, power and despair (published by Éditions du Rocher in 2017), if we do not elect the first lady, she still benefits in practice “of a kind of customary law which recognizes a natural place for him with the president“.

Between its natural place and its political role, there is a gap which, for the two historians, “he will always be blamed“.

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