Last July, when Emmanuel Macron was economy minister in François Hollande’s government and his barely hidden presidential ambitions were dismissed as a naive fantasy by the political class, he held his first rally at a smart venue on Paris’s Left Bank.
Before the crowds arrived, he took to the stage to rehearse his speech in front of a handful of volunteers from his new political movement En Marche! (On the Move), a “neither right nor left” grouping he said would revolutionise French politics. “We are the party of hope,” he told the almost empty auditorium, captured by the film-maker Pierre Hurel, who was discreetly documenting his rise.
A voice interjected: “Your voice is falling, you need to lift your voice.” Brigitte Macron, his wife, was giving him advice as a theatre director would to an actor on stage. “What’s wrong darling? Are there bits that are too long?” he gently asked her about another speech. “Brigitte tells me I always go on too long,” he once told a crowd.
Brigitte Macron’s advice on stagecraft, honed as a school drama coach, has been central to the French presidential frontrunner’s thunderous performances at campaign rallies. He met her when he was a 15-year-old pupil and she a 40-year-old drama teacher running his school theatre club.
Now that Macron, an independent centrist, is favourite to win the presidency against the far-right Front National’s Marine Le Pen next weekend, he wants to go further than any president before him in giving his wife an official role. If elected, he will hold a consultation to define the ambiguous status of first lady in France and draw up a job description for the first time. Brigitte Macron “won’t be paid by the taxpayer”, he promised this week, but he said that as president, “the person who lives with you must have a role”.
Brigitte Macron knows better than anyone else the pitfalls of being a partner at the Elysée Palace, where spouses have never had an official role. Macron was deputy chief of staff at the presidential palace in 2014 when Hollande was photographed sneaking out on a motorbike to meet a lover. The president’s jilted partner, the journalist Valérie Trierweiler, published a damning tell-all account of their relationship’s implosion, with catastrophic consequences for his image.
In private, Brigitte Macron, 64, a French literature and Latin teacher who has always worked at exclusive Jesuit schools, would rather the media stopped obsessing about the 25-year age gap between her and her husband, roughly the same as that between Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, with the genders reversed.
Like her husband, Brigitte Trogneux, known as “Bibi”, was born in the northern city of Amiens in the Somme . Both are from bourgeois backgrounds. She was the youngest of six children – her closest brother was 20 years older – in a family that have been the city’s most famous chocolat iers and confectioners for generations.
At 20, she married Andre-Louis Auzière, who later became a banker, and they had three children. She briefly worked as a press officer in the chamber of commerce of the Pas-d e-Calais area before training as a teacher and taking a post at the prestigious private Jesuit school in Amiens.
When Brigitte Auzière first met Macron, her middle daughter was in his class at school. She never taught him, but ran the school theatre group where he was an aspiring actor, and they adapted a play together.
“I never considered him a pupil,” she told the writers Caroline Derrien and Candice Nedelec, who recently published a book about the couple, Les Macron. When word began to spread about the time they were spending together, Macron was sent away by his parents for sixth-form at a prestigious lycée (secondary school) in Paris to put distance between them, but the relationship never stopped.
More than a decade later, after divorcing her husband, she and Macron married. Their wedding took place at the town hall of the smart northern beach resort of Le Touquet, where she inherited a grand villa that is now their second home.
Macron made a wedding speech thanking Brigitte’s family and children for standing by them. He said they were not a “normal couple – even if I don’t like that word – but we’re a couple that exists”. Brigitte’s seven grandchildren do not call Macron grandpa, but use the English word daddy.
Brigitte Macron first appeared on the public scene when her husband was appointed economy minister in the Socialist government in 2014. At first, she maintained her teaching job at one of Paris’s leading Catholic schools, telling pupils: “You’ll hear remarks, true and false, I’ll never talk about them.”
Then she quit in 2015, saying she wanted to support his career. Brigitte Macron appeared at his ministerial diary planning meetings and became a regular fixture at the ministry, where the couple had a flat. Macron told surprised journalists: “Her view matters to me.” He implied that her presence beside him was non-negotiable. “One can’t work when one’s not happy,” he said.
When her husband was a minister, Brigitte Macron, whose main interests are literature and education, would regularly attend Paris theatres and fashion shows. She also helped him network, at one point reportedly even organising two dinners a night. Her constant presence has persisted into his presidential campaign. She is very protective of him, one Macron insider said.
Macron opted to be photographed with his wife in organised paparazzi shots, pushing his private life into the spotlight in a way not seen since the rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy decided to “imitate the Kennedys” by letting the cameras in on his second marriage to Cécilia, before their very public divorce.
For Macron, photographs with Brigitte were a way of setting himself apart and making himself known. Her presence on numerous celebrity magazine covers, holding hands with him on holiday or walking down the beach in swimwear, inspired a fascination with and curiosity about their unconventional relationship, allowing him to grab the attention of ordinary voters. It worked. Magazine sales would soar every time she was on the cover.
With the publicity, however, came speculation about their relationship. Rumours grew, helped by quips from certain political opponents, that Macron had a secret gay relationship. Journalists searched, but found no evidence it was true. Macron then publicly denied it. He recently said the gay rumours were an example of the “rampant homophobia” in French society, as well as the “rampant misogyny” against older women.
“If I was 20 years older than my wife, no one would have questioned it being a legitimate relationship,” he told readers of Le Parisien. “It’s only because my wife is 20 years older than me that people say it’s not tenable.”
The French economist Marc Ferracci, who was best man at their wedding and is on Macron’s campaign team, said: “They are not a conventional couple, but they fell in love 20 years ago and it has lasted. Their story is very simple. You just have to accept that people can fall in love and it’s so intense that it lasts.”
It is not clear how Brigitte Macron wants to shape her first lady role. At a rally at Strasbourg in October, she said her place was at her husband’s side. “I’ve been involved in everything at his side for 20 years. You always seem surprised that spouses are beside their husbands. It’s time for things to evolve. That’s where we belong,” she said.
Born: 13 April 1953
Career: Teacher of French literature and Latin at private Catholic secondary schools in France. School theatre coach.
High point: Appearing on stage with her husband after he topped the first round of the French presidential election, while his supporters chanted “Brigitte! Brigitte!”
Low point: Disapproval from her older siblings when she decided to leave her first husband. She said her family later fully backed her relationship with Macron.
What she says: “I was captivated by his intelligence.”
What he says: “We don’t have a classic family, that’s an undeniable reality, [but] there is no less love in our family.”