Age is just a number — and no one else’s business

Considering the taste for tabloid fervour across the English Channel, Ireland has something akin to a Gallic disinterest in our politicians’ private indiscretions, writes Clodagh Finn

YOU have to admire the way the new first couple of France has come out ahead of the posse to fend off comments about the 24-year difference in their ages.

Newly elected president Emmanuel Macron said it was misogynist to think he could not be in love with his wife, Brigitte Trogneux, just because he is 39 and she is 64. If he does nothing more in his presidency, that in itself is a worthwhile message to hammer home. Allez, Monsieur Macron.

Mr Macron also said that nobody would question the validity of their relationship if he were 24 years older than his wife.

There’s been a rush to agree with him on that point. Many have turned to his counterpart in the US as evidence. Look at the age difference between US President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania, who is 23 years his junior; nobody thinks that strange, or so the argument goes.

But that is not quite true, is it? I, for one, think it’s very strange that a woman such as Melania could be attracted to a man like Donald Trump. I doubt I’m the only one, but let’s not get personal.

That’s the problem when you start to allow public scrutiny of private lives — it gets very personal, very quickly, and not in a good way.

Witness the uncomfortable conversation about how Mr Macron met his wife — he was a 15-year-old schoolboy when he fell for his teacher, a 40-year-old married mother of three.

If you turned the gender tables on that story — 15-year-old girl falls for 40-year-old male teacher — many more eyebrows would be raised. (Yet more proof that the way we consider the behaviour of men and women is inconsistent and hypocritical.) As it is, a new book by Figaro journalist Anne Fulda about how the young Macron’s parents tried to prevent the match is playing into our insatiable desire for tittle-tattle. What emerges, however, is more a story of enduring love. Apparently, Emmanuel Macron went off to Paris to make his fortune and told Brigitte that he would be back to marry her.

They married in 2007, some 14 years after their initial meeting. And they are still together. Scandaleux.

It would be interesting to see the coverage if a similar political relationship emerged here. To be fair, we have been rather Gallic in our tendency to ignore, or at least underplay, the private shenanigans of our politicians.

In France, the infidelity of former president François Mitterrand was known about for years but was treated discreetly. When he died in 1996, his wife, his lover, and her daughter all famously mourned him together at the funeral.

Here, former taoiseach Charles Haughey’s relationship with social diarist Terry Keane was more of an open secret; one she wrote about with relish in her columns in the Sunday Independent.

The story never ventured outside those columns, as it would have in the UK, until she spoke about it openly on the Late Late Show in 1999.

The reaction to that interview was interesting; many erred on the side of discretion and felt, if not for Haughey himself, for his family.

You would probably have to go back to the story of Charles Stewart Parnell and his long-term relationship with married woman Kitty O’Shea to find a case where an Irish politician’s private life cost them their career.

When Labour junior minister Emmet Stagg was questioned by police in 1994 after being found with a gay man in his parked car in an area of a Dublin park frequented by male prostitutes, the public anger instead focused on the police officer who leaked the story.

The junior minister had done nothing illegal. There was a frenzy in the tabloids, but the man was allowed to go on with his job — and his life. I remember feeling proud to be Irish at the time.

Restraint, alas, has become a thing of the past, in France at least. Perhaps it started with Nicholas Sarkozy, whose presidental term began with a divorce from his second wife and, later, his marriage to pop star Carla Bruni.

That’s celeb gold in any language, and what the French call the people or celebrity press jumped on the story. It helped that the president was fond of bling and media attention, but a Rubicon had been crossed.

His term was followed by François Hollande, a man with a complicated personal life. Remember those paparazzi photographs of him zooming towards his lover on the back of a scooter?

The magazine Closer ran a seven-page exposé on his alleged tryst with actress Julie Gayet. The French public was offended, not by Hollande’s behaviour, but by the magazine’s indiscretion.

When the former president refused to answer questions about his private life, three in four people said he was absolutely right to do so.

Let’s hope that the fuss about the new French president and his wife is just a giddy response to the inauguration of a new first couple.

If no laws are being broken and no public money passes hands (nepotism included), a politician’s private life should remain private.

The blurring of the private and professional doesn’t do anybody any favours — it plays into the hands of those who would have us focus on the image rather than the reality.

For instance, what has been added to the body of universal knowledge after all that press ‘analysis’ of the ‘amazing coincidence’ that the First Lady of the US, Melania Trump, and the First Lady of France, Brigitte Trogneux, both wore powder-blue at their husbands’ inaugurations?

Ironically, Spin, a French political drama series about the political workings of the Élysée Palace finished last night on More4. The show’s ‘scandal’ was that the president’s young lover was pregnant and he wanted to divorce his wife. His older, childless wife. How very old hat.

If we can learn anything from the beginning of the Macron presidency, it is this. The untidy business of relationships is complex, nuanced — and, quite frankly, none of our business.


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