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Would-be French first lady an unusual presence in campaign

Associated Press logo Associated Press 3/05/2017 By SYLVIE CORBET, Associated Press
FILE - In this April 23, 2017 file photo, French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron kisses his wife Brigitte before addressing his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris. Brigitte Macron, the woman would could become France's next first lady not only lives a singular love story with her 24-year-younger husband, she is also his closest collaborator and plays a major role in his campaign. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File) © The Associated Press FILE - In this April 23, 2017 file photo, French centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron kisses his wife Brigitte before addressing his supporters at his election day headquarters in Paris. Brigitte Macron, the woman would could become France's next first lady not only lives a singular love story with her 24-year-younger husband, she is also his closest collaborator and plays a major role in his campaign. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

PARIS — As French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron prepares for a Sunday runoff against far-right rival Marine Le Pen, his wife is pondering the prospect of a prominent job herself. That's unusual for France, as is the fact that throughout the campaign Brigitte Macron has been her husband's closest collaborator.

Le Pen and her companion, Louis Aliot, an official with her far-right National Front party, remain discreet about their relationship, only occasionally appearing publicly as a couple.

Brigitte Macron, meanwhile, has become one of the most talked-about women in France. Much of it is mean-spirited, focusing on her age: She is 64 while her husband is 39. Feminists denounce the comments as sexist and note that the Macrons' age difference is identical to that of Donald and Melania Trump.

Many voters have ignored such talk, focusing on the economic and security issues in the campaigns.

"Of course it's very unusual for a woman to be much older than her husband, but once you've said that there's nothing much to add," said Parisian Marie Coste, 34. "It's more important to focus on the candidates' policies."

Emmanuel Macron responded to the issue Monday by acknowledging that his family is "a little different."

"So yes, there are in France lots of families," he told a crowd chanting his wife's name. "There are same-sex couples and different-sex couples. There are different filiations. And there is plenty of love."

The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

The couple met when she was about the age he is now; he was a teenager.

Then known as Brigitte Auziere, the married mother of three taught French literature in the northern French town of Amiens, where Emmanuel Macron attended a Catholic high school.

Although she never was assigned as his teacher, she was in charge of the high school drama club when he joined. They got to know each other when the 16-year-old Emmanuel suggested they write a play together.

"We wrote, and little by little, I was totally awed by the intellect of this boy," she recalled in a documentary on French television last year. "His culture, his clever, well-formed head. Amazing."

Macron's parents, worried about the budding love affair, sent him away for his last year of high school. Brigitte eventually divorced, returned to her maiden name, Trogneux, and joined him in Paris.

The couple married in 2007. They have no children together but Macron says his wife's three children and seven grand-children are his family.

The couple appeared hand-in-hand on stage the night he placed first in the presidential election's first round. They waved at the crowd with tears in their eyes and kissed — another rarity in French politics, where politicians usually keep their private lives private.

Brigitte Macron often accompanies her husband on campaign stops, taking selfies and listening to people's concerns. She also helps prepare his speeches.

A fashion lover, her style is often described as "modern" in French magazines. She sat in the front row at recent Dior and Louis Vuitton shows.

She quit her job at a chic Parisian high school in 2015 to help her husband. Former students at the Lycee Saint-Louis de Gonzague describe her as an enthusiastic, dynamic, joyful person keen to share her passion for French authors.

As a first lady, she says, she would continue to focus on young people.

"My combat will be education," she told Paris Match magazine last year.

Genevieve Perrier, 91, who lives in the countryside in the Burgundy region, praised Brigitte Macron's apparent "simplicity" because "she seems to speak to everyone when we see her on television. She seems very kind."

Perrier said Brigitte Macron reminds her of another atypical woman, Germaine Coty, France's first lady in the 1950s. At first mocked for her grandmotherly style, Coty went on to enjoy great popularity because of her devotion to the French people.

More recently, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's now-former wife, Cecilia, played a major role in his campaign and worked alongside him.

The couple split up a few months after Sarkozy's election in 2007. The president soon remarried and his new wife, model and singer Carla Bruni, assumed a more traditional role as first lady by staying out of politics and taking part in charity events.

Emmanuel Macron says he would formalize the job of first lady if he wins the election, and his wife would help decide how.

"She has her word to say in this," he said this month.

France has not had a first lady since current President Francois Hollande and his girlfriend, Valerie Trierweiler, parted ways. Their breakup came in 2014 after a tabloid magazine exposed his affair with actress Julie Gayet. Gayet and Hollande have never appeared together in public.

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(This story has been corrected to show that Brigitte Macron is 64.)

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