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Spouses in the spotlight: France's next first lady, or gentleman

Eric Feferberg, AFP | French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron (L) and his wife Brigitte Trogneux (R) attend an event during International Women's Day on March 8, 2017, in Paris.

France's wild 2017 presidential race isn't short on characters -- and that includes the candidates' partners. Like it or not, modern French leaders' spouses are sponges for the spotlight.


Whoever wins in May, France's next première dame -- or premier homme -- will be no exception.

In France, the very role of first lady sits uneasily. At best, the première dame simply doesn’t exist in French law; a president’s spouse has no official status. At worst it is viewed as an aberration, an Americanisation of political life that has no natural place in la République. While Democrats and Republicans across the pond think nothing of Michelle Obama or Melania Trump speaking onstage at their party conventions by virtue of being married to a presidential nominee, the same would be absurd in France, to say nothing of a former first lady pursuing the nation’s top job à la Hillary Clinton.

A French president’s spouse, historically, cut a discreet figure. Yvonne de Gaulle hardly courted celebrity; and while Danielle Mitterrand, to name another, was unusual in her outspoken advocacy for leftist causes, President François Mitterrand’s real consort, Anne Pingeot, was so discreet as to be kept a secret, along with the couple’s daughter, throughout his life at the Elysée Palace.

And yet recent French presidents’ spouses have stolen the spotlight in spectacular ways. Nicolas Sarkozy’s second wife, Cécilia, left the freshly elected conservative president just months into his term in 2007. Soon, Sarkozy had popstar and former supermodel Carla Bruni on his arm. The public learned of the whirlwind romance from paparazzi snaps of their jaunt to Disneyland Paris; Sarkozy married Bruni just nine months after winning office.

François Hollande’s official companion Valérie Trierweiler, too, made headlines just weeks into the Socialist president's term in 2012 when she showily backed a Socialist dissident running for parliament against Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children. The move sparked a minor political crisis and embarrassed the new French leader. Later, in 2014, a tabloid splashed photos insinuating Hollande’s own indiscretions at a borrowed love nest just steps from the Elysée, spelling the couple’s demise and blighting the president’s credibility. Trierweiler would go on to write a scathing tell-all bestseller. Hollande’s actress paramour, Julie Gayet, remained his love interest thereafter, but has never appeared at the president’s side in public.

Now flash forward to 2017 and the new class of potential first spouses.

One is already a household name, for all the wrong reasons. Conservative nominee François Fillon’s wife, Penelope, née Clarke, a 61-year-old mother of five, was born in Wales and trained as a lawyer, although she never practised as one. She drew her unwelcome headlines prematurely with an eponymous scandal, Penelopegate. The Fillons were both placed under formal investigation in March over allegations stemming from her role for many years as Fillon’s parliamentary assistant, work for which she may have pocketed hundreds of thousands of euros without actually having performed the job.

Here is a look at the other top candidates' partners, in life if not in crime.

Emmanuel Macron's wife, Brigitte Trogneux

While the Fillons have dominated campaign headlines for the series of scandals bogging down the conservative's bid, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron (née Trogneux) have caught the eye of the glossy weeklies. By one count, the couple has made four Paris Match covers over the past year and been featured on the cover of celebrity magazine VSD an astounding ten times.

To a far greater extent than other candidates' spouses -- with the possible exception of Mr. Marine Le Pen, a politician and party executive in his own right -- Trogneux has taken an active role in her independent-centrist husband's campaign, attending rallies and campaign events, reading over speeches. But the media's fascination for the pair is clear: their wide age gap and transgressive start.

Trogneux, 63, and Macron, 39, boast the same 24-year age difference as Donald and Melania Trump. But an older woman with a younger man draws a unique curiosity, especially given the Macrons met while Emmanuel was attending a Jesuit high school in his native Amiens, north of Paris, where Brigitte taught French. Then a married mother of three, Trogneux ran the school theatre club where Macron was a budding thespian. She has since said that when Macron left Amiens at 17 to pursue his studies in Paris, he told her, "You won't get rid of me. I'll come back and I will marry you!" And they did wed, 12 years later, in 2007.

At their nuptials, Macron, then 29, thanked guests, he said, "because each of you has been a witness to what we have lived through over these past 13 years”. The then-future economy minister added, "I would like to thank you for accepting us, for having loved us as we are. In particular, I would like to thank Brigitte's children, because if there is someone for whom this must not have been very easy, it was them." Today, Brigitte's children are pitching in with their young stepfather's campaign and the frontrunner candidate, who turns 40 in December, refers to her seven grandchildren as his own.

Trogneux recently joined Macron onstage during a campaign event in Paris, kissing her husband and thanking the crowd. "In the street -- because I stroll around -- you are there telling me, 'Go for it, we love you,' and that is huge for me. If I am managing, it is because you are there," she said.

It was International Women's Day and Macron insisted that, should he be elected on May 7, "She will have then this role, this place... not hidden, not behind a tweet or a hiding place. She will have it at my side."

Marine Le Pen’s companion, Louis Aliot

France’s would-be first gentleman, Aliot, 47, also serves as vice-president of the National Front, Le Pen’s Europhobic, anti-immigration party. Born in Toulouse, the divorced father of two, who has worked outside of politics as a lawyer and a law professor, boasts a sing-song southwestern accent. A longtime rugby player, he looks the part. Aliot shone in the party’s youth wing soon after joining in 1990. He was Jean-Marie Le Pen’s chief of staff in 1999 and served as the National Front founder’s campaign coordinator in 2002, helping write speeches during the presidential bid that saw Le Pen père shock the country by winning a place in the run-off duel.

Aliot’s mother was a pied-noir who left for France when Algeria gained independence in 1962. His maternal grandmother once administered the archives of the local communist party in Algiers and his maternal grandfather was Jewish. Aliot’s background might seem unusual for the National Front, a party critics have long blasted as a haven for anti-Semites, but, like Marine Le Pen, Aliot has long advocated “de-demonising” the party, to cleanse it of just that reputation with an eye to winning power.

He won a seat in the European Parliament in 2014 (and had for many years served as Marine Le Pen’s parliamentary attaché after she won a seat in the same chamber in 2004) and remains a Languedoc-Roussillon regional councillor.

Despite Aliot’s political experience, Le Pen has ruled out naming him as a cabinet minister if elected, telling Femme Actuelle magazine, “The French have expressed their disagreement with the family links that can exist in politics.” For his part, Aliot has said that he will withdraw from national politics if his partner wins the presidency and doesn’t plan to live in the Elysée Palace.

Benoît Hamon’s wife, Gabrielle Guallar

Socialist Party candidate Hamon has taken flak over his wife’s discretion during this campaign, accused of trying to “hide” her. Hamon declined an invitation to appear on Ambition Intime, a television show that pried into candidates’ private lives with their blessing. And Guallar didn't make her first appearance on the campaign trail until March 19, at her husband's rally in a Paris arena.

Half-Danish and half-Catalan, Guallar speaks five languages. A mother of two girls, she studied at Sciences Po, France’s prestigious political studies institute, and holds a Master’s in European political and administrative studies from Belgium’s College of Europe. Guallar spent seven years at a Brussels-based consultancy, then another seven at the National Centre for Cinema and the Moving Image as a European Affairs advisor.

“I am very proud that my wife is a hundred times more educated than I am,” Hamon has told French television.

But Guallar’s current job is seen as inconvenient for a hardline Socialist candidate who readily slams rivals to his right for their purported love of money. Guallar, 41, handles public affairs for the global luxury giant LVMH and has appeared before the French Senate to defend, among other things, Sunday shopping at the company’s Sephora store on the Champs Elysées. Those hearings were held to debate the so-called Macron Law -- nicknamed for then-economy minister Macron, a key Hamon rival in this election -- to liberalise the French economy. (Hamon, for his part, had railed against the law, telling the Journal du Dimanche, “The society of consumption has meddled in every aspect of our lives. The task of the leftwing in power is to not consider that the French are merely consumers.”) Critics have deemed her a lobbyist, just as her husband has stumped against lobbies, although Guallar disagrees with that tag.

The couple has bristled at the suggestion Guallar is being stowed away or that her profession embarrasses her politician husband. Last week, responding to the controversy, she asked in the weekly L'Obs, “Do we not live in a time when, within a couple, each person can have her own personality, her own professional trajectory, where the woman isn’t necessarily a carbon copy of the man?”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, officially a bachelor

On the subject of first dames, the far-left La France Insoumise candidate is characteristically blunt. Although the tabloids have reported since 2015 that Mélenchon is in a relationship with film and television actress Saïda Jawad, 22 years his junior, the candidate insists he will not have a dame in the Elysée Palace. The 65-year-old divorced former Socialist cabinet minister pledged on his blog in March, “If you elect me president of the republic, know that I will continue to live at my place, in my neighbourhood, while paying my share to the Republic for my official accommodation. And since you won’t have a first lady, since I am single, I will be a less expensive president overall. So that means savings for you.”

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