French centrist Emmanuel Macron’s resounding victory over France-first nationalist Marine Le Pen in the presidential election Sunday signals a welcome shift toward saner central ground.
Winning nearly 66 percent of the vote, Macron — a pro-European Union former investment banker — joins leaders in Austria and the Netherlands who also bested far right populists within recent months.
But that’s not the only union on the minds and lips of the French at the moment.
Macron, at 39 the youngest president to take over the Elysee Palace, has a first lady, Brigitte Trogneux, who is 24 years his senior. They met when she was the then-15-year-old’s teacher.
The French response to the age difference (she turned 64 last month) has caused some raised brows, but mostly yawns and you-go-girls. But the fact that the marriage got almost as much media attention as did far right extremism makes this a good time to ask:
Why is it that we still have a harder time accepting an older woman with a younger man than we do the other way around?
President Donald Trump is 24 years older than his wife, Melania, for example, but there’s far less hand-wringing about that.
And what about Grover Cleveland, history buffs? At 49, that U.S. president married 21-year-old Frances Folsom, whom he had known since her birth, being a close friend of her father. Public outrage? Hardly. Folsom was immediately embraced, according to historical accounts, due largely to her “good looks and unaffected charm.” She became one of our most popular first ladies.
Admittedly, the Macron-Trogneux story is juicy, even by French standards. Trogneux was married and the mother of three when she was a literature teacher and Macron’s drama coach in Amiens in northern France. By all accounts, it was the teenager who was smitten initially. His parents asked Trogneux to please stay away, even sending their son to Paris to sever the budding romance.
Well, that didn’t work. She eventually divorced, and the couple have been inseparable for two decades. They married 10 years ago, and French magazine Paris Match calls Trogneux one of her husband’s most trusted advisers.
Debra Petersen has been watching the story through an intriguing lens.
“From a communication perspective, a really interesting aspect is that they’ve tried to get ahead of this story,” said Petersen, an associate professor in the Communication and Journalism Department at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.
She noted that the couple have generously posed for photographs, including on a magazine cover and sunning together on the beach, even kissing.
“That is fascinating,” Petersen said. “Visually, they’re taking control.”
And not just visually. Macron has been quoted saying that he realizes that theirs is not a “classic family,” Petersen noted. He also emphasized “there is no less love in our family.”
Hard to debate that.
Petersen contrasts their marriage with that of the Trumps, whose photographs together tend to be “very formal” and staged.
Samantha Heuwagen thinks the older man/younger woman scenario is easier to accept because it’s so familiar to us.
“Donald and Melania has played out so many times in history,” said Heuwagen, a sex therapist who teaches gender and women’s studies at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta.
“The man leaving his wife for a younger woman, the whole stereotype,” she said, is one we see often, including the procreation piece. The Trumps have a 10-year-old son, Barron, together.
We see this not just in politics, but in sports, business and entertainment realms, too.
Then a couple such as Macron and Trogneux come along, Heuwagen said. Her children are his age.
“We say, ‘Wait. What? Why would he be with an older woman? He’s in his sexual prime.’ We don’t know what to make of it,” Heuwagen said.
“This older woman is accomplished, fun, beautiful, but we are told that anyone over 50 is not a sexual creature. It flips our entire notion of what it means to be a woman.”
Heuwagen hopes that in 2017, we’ll finally break out of that sexist, ageist mold. “I would love it if Brigitte became this new symbol of intellectual people who are doing the best they can in the world,” she said.
Remember, the lion’s share of heterosexual couples marry someone within two or three years of their own age — 2.3 years, to be exact, according to the most recent Current Population Survey. And around 40 percent of them eventually divorce.
This powerhouse French couple offer us practice in expanding our far too narrow definition of what a healthy, loving marriage can look like. By most accounts, they each feel valued, challenged, supported and loved.
He’ll need all of that, and more, to keep his passionate country on track.
firstname.lastname@example.org 612-673-7350 • Twitter: @grosenblum