I understand why so many of us are cheering for the election of Emmanuel Macron in France. He seems like an antidote to Trump, is far more appealing to most than the seemingly Trump-aligned Marine Le Pen, and is a young fresh face. He is proof that, that at least in France, a third party disruptor can actually win a presidential election. And his wins means that the trifecta of Trump, Brexit, and “Frexit” with Le Pen didn’t come to pass.
Phew. I get it. Bullet dodged.
But if Americans are going to flock to Twitter and Facebook to cheer the outcome, they should also be willing to have the harder conversation that seems to be missing amidst all the celebration and relief: the story of how Macron’s relationship with his wife began.
The new First Lady of France was a 39-year-old married mother of three when President-Elect Macron was a 15-year-old student in her drama class. Her daughter was the same age as Macron and was even in his class at school. While the exact start of their romantic relationship is a bit unclear and she denies a “carnal” relationship until after his graduation from high school, there seems to be no doubt that their relationship was way out of bounds for at least three years while he was a student and she was a teacher.
Macron himself describes it this way:
It was at secondary school, through drama, that I met Brigitte. It was surreptitiously that things happened and that I fell in love. Through an intellectual bond, which day after day became ever closer. Then emerged a lasting passion.
And according to the New York Times, Brigitte, the now First Lady of France, describes it this way:
He assured me that he would return, she told Paris Match. At the age of 17, Emmanuel told me, ‘Whatever you do, I will marry you.’ Love took everything in its path and led me to divorce.
Macron’s parents tried to put an end to the relationship and even resorted to pleading with Brigitte and sending him away to a different school in the hope that his affair with his teacher would end.
Emmanuel’s parents, a bit shaken, decided to meet Brigitte and ask her not to see their son until he had reached adulthood. Jean-Michel Macron (his father), however, was not convinced this was the right response. “I thought it could even have an adverse effect,” he says. But, he adds, his wife insisted, and so he told Brigitte: “I forbid you to see him until he’s 18.”
It didn’t work.
Let’s Ask Ourselves
Would we be okay with this student teacher relationship if the teacher were a man and the fifteen year old were a girl?
Are we comfortable with male teachers engaging in sexual relationships with our teen-aged daughters?
We know that in some states the answer is no because they have passed state laws designed to protect students through high school graduation from precisely what occurred with Macron and his now wife. Yes, the very one whom he has said will have an “official role within the administration.”
I know, I know. I’m just that stereotypical American who doesn’t respect or understand France’s cultural norms. (Or so I was told on Facebook by someone who lives in France.)
But are we really comfortable with how their relationship started? Let’s pretend he isn’t the guy who just beat Marine Le Pen in a presidential election; instead, let’s imagine he is our son. Our brother. Our neighbor. Our friend.
Do we or do we not have a problem with teachers engaging with students in romantic and sexual ways? In my state of Rhode Island and neighboring MA, it’s perfectly legal for a teacher to sleep with any student who is 16 or older. In nearby Connecticut and New Hampshire, it’s against the law.
And in France, it’s against the law.
Were we wrong to send Mary Kay LeTourneau to jail for her relationship with her 12 year old student? She, like Brigitte Macron, also married the boy, and remains with him to this day. (They have two children together as well.) And their age difference is actually less than that of the French president and his wife.
Our refusal to put a spotlight on this issue in our schools is cause for shame. Women (and some men too) marched in the streets, in part, over the slew of allegations of sexual assault by our current President but fail to don those pink hats when one in 10 students in America is the victim of sexual misconduct and/or abuse in school between Kindergarten and twelfth grade by a teacher or other school staff member.
That is 4.5 million students for whom no one is marching or knitting pink hats.
Of course the presidency is a way bigger deal than whatever icky thing we think is happening in some town far away. But the depressing truth is, like with the Catholic Church, we are learning that child sex abuse happens everywhere. Let’s not pretend that it isn’t life shattering for those who are living the tragedy that far too many of us prefer to ignore.
The danger of celebrating Macron’s story is that we normalize this kind of relationship between teacher and student and consequently, make it acceptable. We further compound this by allowing ourselves to be selective in our outrage. As an adult man and the new leader of a fellow democratic nation, Macron’s marriage is his business but we can’t allow the prominence of his position to send the message to anyone—especially our children or those that would harm them—that this is okay.