The leaders we elect speak volumes about ourselves and the cultures we inhabit. So do their spouses and the couples they form together. Never have two modern Western countries offered such divergent role models, where marital choices become potent symbols of progressive social trends, or their disappearance.
It is an astonishing historical and cultural divide that lies between the picture of France and America’s presidential families: the Trumps and the Macrons. In the former, we have a dated, stereotypical picture of the thrice-married older man with a model-wife 24 years his junior. Right out of Mad Men. The couple is a meme of every gender stereotype come true, proudly inhabited by the US’s male chauvinist in chief. The Trumps’ look distinctly uncomfortable as a couple, and Melania has stayed in New York while her husband erupts into Washington. She appears a sad sample of a disempowered spouse, particularly commented on during the inauguration ceremony.
Trump came after a model American family, the Obamas. Traditionally married, visibly adoring of each other and their two charming daughters.
The new French President is the mirror image of this stereotype. Macron has surged into sudden power inspired by the teacher he fell in love with in high school. He eventually convinced her to leave her husband and marry him. She is 24 years his senior. They flip every stereotype in the book. And they seem to enjoy it. They look as tight as can be, and she is likely to have a strategic position in his government. The Macrons are a recomposed family, and Emmanuel has powerfully spoken on the campaign trail, not on how he embraces pussy of all types, but on how he embraces families of all stripes, and how he considers his wife’s children and grandchildren his own – in everything but blood.
Macron comes after Francois Hollande who has never married, had four children with former Presidential candidate Segolene Royale, then shared the Elysee Palace with a woman journalist who eventually wrote a nasty book about him, before getting caught scootering across town to meet up with an actress friend.
Even their opponents tell a tale of two countries. Both Marine Le Pen and Hillary Clinton are lifelong political operatives. Both were brought to power and visibility by the men in their lives: Hillary by spouse, Marine by father. Both had to eliminate those men from their campaigns to distance themselves from the stain of their sins: Bill’s adultery and Le Pen-père’s racism.
The US rejected one of the most experienced presidential candidates it was ever presented with in no small measure because of her lack of alignment with both ends of the gender-acceptable spectrum. For conservatives, she was an out-of-stereotype power woman in pantsuits. For feminists, she was a woman who unacceptably stood by her philandering man. She played the gender card on the campaign trail by talking feminism but acting masculine – strong, unemotional, and rational. One of the big criticisms levied against her was her lack of ‘authenticity.’
France has just rejected an equally experienced woman because of her platform, not her sex. And nobody doubts her authenticity. She has used her sex strategically and effectively to repackage her father’s unacceptable package of macho-fascism with tales of motherhood and apple pie (literally). Pre-Round Two, National Front posters rebranded her ‘Marine’ (not far off France’s mythical Mariane) and even showed a bit of leg, with a chic dress edging up… Although she plays with traditional themes like motherhood, she is a very modern French version of the working woman. She has also been married twice and now lives, unmarried, with her campaign manager.
For anyone yearning for the good old days of traditional gender roles, the only ones on offer are backward-leaning rather than traditional. Another interesting gender factoid of our political stage: none of the current leaders of the UK, France or Germany has biological children of their own. We can embrace all this fluidity and redefinition, with Macron, rail against it like a real man, as Trump does. Or you can move to Canada.
Just know, that our sons and daughters are watching. What our leaders – political and familial – say and do about gender roles, (re)defines the boundaries of the acceptable. It gives permission to others to behave in the same way. For good and for ill.
Vive la difference!