Is the role of first lady a necessary one? In the United States, it seems so, with marriage, alongside Christianity and heterosexuality, having come to serve as tacit signifiers of a candidate’s morality and maturity. In fact, the last time Americans elected a bachelor to office was in 1885 (Grover Cleveland), and only once in U.S. history has a president remained single throghout his term (James Buchanan). The last time a bachelor ran for president is more recent—just last year—but does anyone even remember Lindsey Graham’s candidacy? In sum, Americans wouldn’t know what to do with themselves without a First Lady whom they can judge for her clothes, causes and, in the case of Hillary Clinton, career aspirations. When we elect a president to represent us, we also elect his wife.
It’s an entirely different story in the country of France, which just deemed the role of first lady unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money. The government ruled on Tuesday that there is no need for such a position following a petition that opposed the creation of a formal role, the First Lady of France (“première Dame”) for Brigitte Macron, the wife of French President Emmanuel Macron. It attained more than 300,000 signatures in two weeks’ time.
Regarding the decision, the government is releasing a “transparency charter” within the next few days, The Guardian reports, with officials clarifying that Brigitte’s role will still be public, just not political.
The reason the government announced its decision prior to the release of the charter is due to the aforementioned petition, which grew steadily in popularity as time went on. In May, a YouGov poll predicted this eventual outcome, finding that almost 70 percent of French citizens opposed the head of state’s spouse having an official role within Élysée Palace. Many argue there’s no reason to create a position that has heretofore been unneccesary and would be supported by public funds.
Because it’s 2017, the petitioners had to explicitly state that sexism was not the driving force behind their opposition. “We fiercely denounce all the sexist attacks against Brigitte Macron and we do not call into question her skills,” the petition read. Instead, the document explains that people didn’t vote for Brigitte to represent them—they voted for her husband. For a first lady role to see the light of day in France, then, the French people would need to vote on it first.
Obviously, we have an entirely different philosophy in the U.S, for reasons of which the French seem to be ignorant. Here, presidents’ spouses serve as cut-and-clear representatives of their partner’s campaign and administration. Once elected, they’re expected to carry out goodwill campaigns of their own. The history of first ladies as social warriors goes back to Dolley Madison’s efforts to help orphans in the early 19th century. More recently, Eleanor Roosevelt promoted equal rights, Hillary Clinton championed children’s health care and Michelle Obama built health programs for America’s youth. Melania Trump’s cause has wavered between women’s rights and online bullying, and without a doubt, the Slovenian former model has been the most invisible first lady in recent memory.
Even so, denying a woman the opportunity of having some level of political influence vis-à-vis her husband while simultaneously appaluding her competancy feels misguided. While more young women have definitely dreamed of becoming president versus becoming a first lady, our country’s right-hand women have inspired thousands more to pursue politics. In the United States, this not a token role, but rather—as proven by everyone from Mary Todd Lincoln to Jackie Kennedy to Lady Bird Johnson—a role that guarantees a woman a voice within the highest office of government.
More problematic is that in France, the president’s spouses have historically been relegated to the front pages of gossip rags instead of the front pages of newspapers for their accomplishments. Such has been the case thus far for Brigitte, whose relationship with President Macron has become a catalyst for criticism from national and international media, if only because she’s nearly 25 years older than the president. Readers also feeding on the couple’s sordid history. The two met in high school; she was his teacher.
Christophe Castaner, a French government spokesman, offered this context regarding the government’s decision: “Brigitte Macron has a role and responsibilities. We are looking to be transparent and to outline the means she has at her disposal. No modification of the constitution, no new funding, no salary for Brigitte Macron.” In other words, the French seem more concerned with the logistics and paperwork of the role versus what it could represent.
Meanwhile, if anyone has heard from Melania as of late, let us know.