The cover of Paris Match magazine late last year featured a handsome, 30-something man strolling arm in arm with an attractive blond woman in her 60s. The same couple were on the cover of a summer issue, holding hands at the beach, and on a spring edition dressed up for a state dinner.
As France gears up for presidential elections in April (and probably a runoff in May), this unusual pair could help prevent it from becoming the next country to succumb to xenophobic populism. He’s the upstart presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron, and she’s his former high school French teacher, Brigitte Trogneux, now his close adviser and wife.
Mr. Macron, the 39-year-old former economy minister, is now in second place in the polls. He surged past the conservative François Fillon this week thanks to “Penelope-gate” — an investigation into whether Mr. Fillon’s Welsh-born wife held a well-paid government job but didn’t actually work, and other allegations.
Mr. Macron still lags the front-runner, Marine Le Pen, who wants France to slash immigration and leave the European Union. Mr. Macron is adamantly pro-Europe and quickly opposed President Trump’s barring of refugees. Polls show that Mr. Macron would easily defeat Ms. Le Pen in a runoff.
He’s benefiting from a global election season in which voters want to break with conventions. On one hand Mr. Macron is an énarque — a graduate of ENA, France’s elite finishing school for future presidents and ministers — and worked as an investment banker before quickly rising in the Socialist Party. But last year he broke away from the ruling (and ailing) Socialists to form his own centrist party, which he claims is neither left nor right. His youth adds to his novelty.
And his unconventional personal story keeps him from seeming like just another ambitious énarque. Mr. Macron and his wife met when he was a 15-year-old 10th grader at a Jesuit high school in Amiens, and Ms. Trogneux was a 40-year-old married mother of three children, one of whom was in Mr. Macron’s class. Then known by her married name, Auzière, she taught French literature and ran the theater club.
By all accounts Mr. Macron was precocious: an accomplished pianist who excelled academically and starred in the school play, which Ms. Trogneux directed. (While minister, he recited Molière from memory on French TV.) “Resolutely, he wasn’t like the others. He was always with the teachers,” Ms. Trogneux said in the French documentary “Emmanuel Macron: The Meteor Strategy.” “He wasn’t an ado” — an adolescent — she added.
Their relationship turned romantic when Mr. Macron, then in 11th grade, persuaded her to write a play with him. “Writing brought us together every Friday and it unleashed an incredible closeness,” she told Paris Match.
At the insistence of either his alarmed parents or the frazzled Ms. Trogneux, Mr. Macron left to spend his senior year in Paris at the prestigious Lycée Henri-IV. Before leaving home, he reportedly promised his teacher: “You won’t get rid of me. I will return and I will marry you.”
Over long phone calls from Paris, “little by little, he vanquished my resistance,” she said. Ms. Trogneux eventually divorced her husband and took a teaching job in Paris. “I told myself: I’m going to miss out on my life if I don’t do this.”
At their 2007 wedding, Mr. Macron thanked Ms. Trogneux’s children for accepting him and said the pair are “not at all a normal couple — though I don’t like that adjective much — but we’re a couple that exists.”
Its existence has caused some flack. A radio humorist recently called the long-legged Ms. Trogneux a “menopausal Barbie.” Critics call Mr. Macron a “chouchou” — a kind of teacher’s pet — who’s jumping the line for the presidency and flaunting his personal life to win votes.
But the French press is frequently admiring of their relationship. Magazines call her a fashion icon and run pictures of the youthful Mr. Macron giving a baby bottle to one of his seven step-grandchildren.
It helps that — although their romance began when Mr. Macron was scandalously young — once students reach university, student-teacher flings are practically expected. The twist, in Mr. Macron’s case, is that they’re still together decades later.
And true love excuses many breaches of convention here. Last fall’s main literary event was “Letters to Anne,” a 1,276-page book of romantic letters that former President François Mitterrand sent to his longtime mistress, Anne Pingeot. They met when she was 19 and he was 45. (“I feel that I’ve been making love to you without stopping since August 15, 1963!” Mr. Mitterrand declared in a letter dated seven years later.)
The French also pride themselves on not moralizing. Politicians’ private lives don’t have to follow a script, and no one even expects them to discuss it. Marine Le Pen has two ex-husbands and took years to acknowledge her current relationship with another party official.
But don’t confuse a lack of moralizing with a lack of interest. One sign that President François Hollande’s career was kaput was that no one cared anymore about whom he was sleeping with. The Socialists are running Mr. Hollande’s former education minister for president instead; he’s currently in distant fourth place in the polls.
The one requirement is that a politician’s love life should be sincere, especially if it’s part of his public persona. Mr. Macron went on TV in November to deny a persistent rumor that he’s secretly gay and living a “double life.” At issue isn’t his sexuality; it’s his authenticity. The implication is that if his love story isn’t real, his plans for the country lack substance, too.
For the future of France, let’s hope it is.
Pamela Druckerman is the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting and a contributing opinion writer.