AThe lead-up to the French presidential election has been rife with debates over immigration, terrorism and the European Union, but one nonpolitical factor has fascinated the public in France and abroad: the 24-year age gap between Emmanuel Macron, 39, the candidate who will face off against Marine Le Pen on Sunday, and his wife Brigitte, 64.
Granted, the back story to their coupledom is unusual, maybe even by the standards of the French, whose current and past leaders have been embroiled in very public romantic dramas.
Ms. Macron first met Mr. Macron when he was 15 and she was his teacher, married with three children, at a high school in Amiens, France. The two became close after Mr. Macron asked her to help him rewrite sections of a play. Before Mr. Macron moved to Paris to continue his schooling, he declared, at age 17, that he would one day marry his teacher. He did, in 2007.
The specifics of their love have generated headlines, commentary and opinion pieces around the world. A Forbes article asked: “Who Is the Older Woman That Could Become France’s First Lady?” A feminist think piece in The Guardian responded to a heavy-on-the-sarcasm column in The Daily Mail that portrayed Mr. Macron as a “mummy’s boy” who needs Ms. Macron to wipe his mouth or give him “a smack” for misbehaving. Ms. Macron has been called a “menopausal Barbie” and Mr. Macron a teacher’s pet.
All the talk even led to wild speculation that Mr. Macron is gay and in a relationship with the chief executive of Radio France, Mathieu Gallet. Mr. Macron dismissed the rumor in February with a joke.
Why the obsessive chronicling?
Cindy Gallop, a provocative web entrepreneur who has been vocal about her decision to date younger men, points to sexism. “It makes people very uncomfortable to see the gender equation reversed,” she said. “Out there in the world are many, many younger men who would love to date older women, but would never do anything about it because there’s this appalling societal double standard.”
As unconventional as the Macrons’ marriage may seem, the pairing of an older woman with a significantly younger man is not a new one (recall Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher or Madonna and Brahim Zaibat), nor is it that uncommon.
“We make this assumption that men want all the power,” said Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and adviser to Match.com, which funded a survey of 5,500 singles in America last year and found that 26 percent of women were open to dating men 10 or more years younger. “It’s flat out not true. Men want a companion, and we are seeing the rise of women as intellectual partners, as sexual partners, as soul partners.”
Ms. Fisher added that the prevalence of May-December romances involving younger men is part of a general shift in Western culture toward double-income families. With women gaining more economic power, she added, younger men will seek out partners who either make as much money as they do or more, and have similar or higher levels of education.
Examples of such relationships already abound in popular culture. Take Aaron Taylor-Johnson, 26, who won a Golden Globe this year for his role in “Nocturnal Animals” and stars in the coming movie “The Wall.” Mr. Taylor-Johnson has been married since 2012 and has two children with Sam Taylor-Johnson, 50, a director of “Fifty Shades of Grey” and other films.
Wendi Deng Murdoch, 48, who was married to Rupert Murdoch, 86, for over a decade recently became Instagram official with Bertold Zahoran, 23, a model. The two vacationed in the Caribbean on New Year’s Eve, and recently went on a trip with Hugh Jackman and Diane von Furstenberg.
Those who follow reality TV may be familiar with the pairing of Carole Radziwill, 53, an author and Emmy-award-winning journalist who stars on “Real Housewives of New York City,” and Adam Kenworthy, 31, a chef. And magazine insiders may know that Laura Brown, the editor in chief of InStyle magazine, dates Brandon Borror-Chappell, a writer and comedian who is 16 years younger.
All of these couples have dealt with a hefty share of scrutiny. Mr. Taylor-Johnson told Vulture earlier this year that the attention on his marriage has been “intrusive.” Ms. Radziwell faced criticism from her “Real Housewives” co-star Luann de Lesseps, whose niece had once dated Mr. Kenworthy.
Ms. Gallop, who is 57, said that younger men are able to match her energy levels better than men her age. Beyond that, she sees herself as an alternative role model. “People are interested in the overall point I’m making,” she said. “Design a model that works for you as opposed to imposing a societally approved model of who you are supposed to be.”
Dr. Fisher goes further, and sees this as a sign of progress. “People will have natural questions about it,” she said. “But the beauty is that these days we can go beyond our culture, and choose who we want and go with our hearts. Love wins.”