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Geopolitics

Behind Any Great Man, The Singular Role Of Brigitte Macron

France's incoming First Lady is 24 years older than Emmanuel Macron, her husband and former drama student. How this unusual presidential couple is rewriting the rules of French politics.

Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron celebrating with supporters on May 7
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron celebrating with supporters on May 7
Vanessa Schneider

PARIS — Never did Emmanuel Macron, the French president-elect, plan to do any of this without her. Brigitte Macron, his wife, was always part of the equation. And come Sunday, when the presidency officially changes hands, she will have her rightful place at the Elysée Palace.

"In any case, there is something in the presidential function that involves the couple," Emmanuel Macron told the magazine Paris Match on May 4. "I accept that and I think she does too."

He touched on the issue two months earlier as well, on March 8 — International Women's Day — during a visit to a Parisian theater. "If I'm elected," he said, "she won't be hidden away, not behind a tweet, a hideout or anything else. She'll be by my side because she's always been by my side." The comments were a thinly veiled reference to Valérie Trierweiler, the former partner of outgoing President François Hollande, and to Hollande's secret life with the actress Julie Gayet.

For the first time in a long while, a close-knit couple will be moving into the presidential residence.

Before the outgoing president's sentimental vaudeville, his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, was ditched just weeks after his election by his then wife, Cécilia Ciganer. Before that, Jacques Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, had occupied different quarters at the Elysée, and François and Danielle Mitterrand had long ceased to share their daily lives.

Brigitte Macron, 64, will be a full-time first lady, just like she was a full-time candidate's wife. The unusual couple rose to power together. Never has a candidate's spouse played such an important role in a French presidential campaign. She took part in every moment of her husband's rise, not as a passive spectator, but as a real actor on the battlefield.

For the first time in a long while, a close-knit couple will be moving into the presidential residence.

She was not involved in her husband's political strategy or policy program, but she did proofread his speeches and coach him, as she had done back when she was his drama teacher — all the while managing his schedule, acting as his spin doctor and as a link between the candidate and the outside world. A natural collaboration for this couple, described as "inseparable" by their friend Jacques Attali, a veteran economic and social theorist and political adviser.

"Brigitte is a little bit of myself and vice versa," Emmanuel Macron told Paris Match. "She's essential to me."

But nothing had prepared the former French teacher to public life. "Only three years ago, she didn't know anything about the world of politics," notes her friend and writer Philippe Besson, adding that she is still "bewildered" by the violence of the environment in which she now finds herself immersed.

When Emmanuel Macron was appointed economy minister in August 2014, Brigitte had to adapt. A few months later, she left her teaching job at Saint-Louis de Gonzague, a prestigious private high school in the 16th arrondissement of Paris, to join her husband at the ministry.

With no salary nor official position, she quickly made herself indispensable to the office, taking part in meetings about her husband's schedule and organizing his dinners and lunches, both social and professional. And Emmanuel Macron defended her presence loud and clear: "You don't work well when you're not happy," he once told a journalist. "Public life consumes your private life. Brigitte has to understand what I do, she needs to listen and sometimes express her opinion."

In August 2016, when Macron decided to leave the government and set out on his presidential adventure, he gathered his team members at the economy ministry one last time and made a point of thanking his wife and praising her discreet role, "because she was a part of this office."

The presence of Brigitte on the campaign undeniably improved her husband's image.

And yet, Brigitte's place did not remain discreet for very long. The couple deliberately staged paparazzi snapshots published in the celebrity press and spread small confidences here and there. Their decision to allow Pierre Hurel, the director of a documentary on Macron, to use excerpts from their wedding video had some undesirable consequences: Brigitte's appearance was mocked and she was the target of misogynistic comments over their 24-year age gap.

Her part in Macron's rise to power, and her direct and even brutal way of talking to him when she thought he did not perform well, had some people in the campaign gritting their teeth. But anyone who risked voicing the slightest criticism was swiftly set straight by the candidate. Eventually, even the most skeptical had to admit that the presence of Brigitte on the campaign — always smiling and affable and taking the time to speak with people, take selfies and give autographs — undeniably improved her husband's image.

Her popularity and their oft-recounted love story showed a more humane side of a man repeatedly perceived as too technocratic and bland. Rarely in politics has a couple been so often on the magazine's front pages. And not just in France. The international press has grown passionate about Brigitte Macron, her look is analyzed by fashion specialists, her idyll with the young president studied by romance enthusiasts.

The glossy magazine strategy did not always go smoothly. In April 2016, after an interview Brigitte gave to Paris Match triggered negative reactions, Emmanuel Macron offered a clumsy defense: "My wife doesn't really know the way the media works. Actually, she deeply regrets it. It's a mistake, a mistake we made together."

And on the evening of the election's first round, Emmanuel Macron was criticized for bringing his wife on stage with him, as if he had already been elected. It was a dress rehearsal of sorts. Brigitte Macron had earned her place in the photograph, and the French are about to see a lot more of her.

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Society

How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

Keep reading...Show less

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