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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

French baulk at Macron's attempt to give wife official role

French president's proposal adds to government expense at a time it is trying to trim budget 

French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte attend a concert at the Elysee Palace on July 25, 2017. Mr Macron has angered citizens by proposing to make the role of first lady official. Julien de Rosa / Pool photo via AP
French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte attend a concert at the Elysee Palace on July 25, 2017. Mr Macron has angered citizens by proposing to make the role of first lady official. Julien de Rosa / Pool photo via AP

Hundreds of thousands of French have signed an online petition protesting at Emmanuel Macron’s decision to grant his wife Brigitte a formal office of first lady.

At a time when the 39-year-old French leader is championing budget cuts of €5 billion (Dh25.7bn), the decision to offer Mrs Macron an office with full-time staff and an operating budget is emerging as a rallying point for discontent.

On Monday the petition against granting the president’s spouse the title Premiere Dame had crossed the 200,000 signature threshold. Mrs Macron’s official duties are currently covered by a €450,000 line item in the budget of the Elysee Palace.

“Brigitte Macron currently has a team of two or three aides, as well as two secretaries and two security agents. That's enough," the petition says.

The initiative comes just days after the National Assembly passed a resolution that banned politicians from putting their family members on the public payroll. Yet separate legislation to define the job of first lady is expected next month.

Each French president faces controversy over arrangements for the first lady. Francois Hollande separated from his then-partner in his first year in office after a series of rows over Valerie Trierweiler’s role, including a spat over her presence on a state visit to India. Mr Hollande did not even subsequently try to introduce his new girlfriend to public life.

Mr Macron does have some sympathy from the normally acerbic commentariat as columnists point out that previous first wives won French hearts using taxpayer funds. President Jacques Chirac led the country from 1995 to 2007 and his wife Bernadette kept up a hectic social diary that was funded by the state. “Did Bernadette Chirac write with a pen at a corner table and pick up her own letters?” asked Anne Elisabeth Moutet, a Parisian writer. “This a demagogic reaction.”

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Inaugurated on a wave of public support for a fresh start in French politics, Mr Macron has seen his popularity slump as low as 36 per cent from highs of 66 per cent in June. The last French leader to fall so low at the outset of his term was Mr Chirac in 1995, though he subsequently won the 2002 election.

French trade unions are already preparing for an autumn battle with Mr Macron over reforms to the country’s labour laws and restrictive economic rule book. “They’ve decided to shatter the workers rule book, there will be fewer rights for workers, so workers must react,” declared Phillipe Martinez, the leader of the transport union.

Critics of the new president believe the row is a product of his inexperience. “We are seeing promises not being kept, hitches and flip-flopping,” said Daniel Fasquelle, an MP for the centre-right Republican party.

Mrs Macron has, however, played an outsize role in her husband’s rise to the apex of French power. The 64-year-old was his high school teacher and has been credited with shaping his political outlook.

Officials said her involvement in social causes was already well known and that thousands of letters arrived at the palace for her each day. “When you’re elected president of the Republic, you live with someone, you give your days and nights, you give your public life and your private life,” Mr Macron declared during the campaign. “So the person who lives with you must have a role and be recognised in that role.”

Increasing numbers of the French public however appear to want a leader who can draw a dividing line between his private life and the role of president of the republic.