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By Kim Willsher
The French president’s wife, Brigitte Macron, will not be given an official “first lady” title or her own budget, the French government has said following a petition against a proposed change to her status.
A “transparency charter” will be published in the next few days to clarify the position of Emmanuel Macron’s wife, but presidential aides insist her role will be strictly public and not political.
The Élysée has made no official announcement, but officials were forced to react after the petition opposed to the president’s spouse having an official title, status and budget was signed by more than 275,000 people in two weeks.
During his election campaign, Macron promised to “clarify” his wife’s role to “end the hypocrisy” over the situation. One of Macron’s first actions after taking power was to set up a working party to examine the “first lady” position.
A YouGov poll for the French edition of the Huffington Post in May suggested 68% of the French public was opposed to the head of state’s spouse being given an official role.
The issue has sparked particular controversy at a time when French parliamentarians are facing a new “morality law” banning them from employing their spouses or family members.
The proposed charter to clarify Brigitte Macron’s status will define a clear role for the president’s spouse and make public for the first time the precise number of staff working for her and the total cost to the French taxpayer.
At present neither the French constitution nor protocol establishes any rules, and previous presidents’ spouses made it up as they went along. Their public and charity work is financed out of the Elysée’s annual budget of €5m-€7m.
Presidential staff insisted the apparent change of heart was not prompted by the petition but by the reflections of the working group.
Christophe Castaner, the government spokesman, tweeted: “Brigitte Macron has a role and responsibilities. We are looking to be transparent and to outline the means she has at her disposal.”
“No modification of the constitution, no new funding, no salary for Brigitte Macron. Stop the hypocrisy!” Castaner wrote in a series of tweets.
“She receives more than 200 letters a day .. .and keeps a link with the French public with the greatest discretion.”
In an interview with France2 television, Castaner said: “We’re are not talking about a job; we’re just talking about her status. A job is remunerated. The wife of the president of the republic receives no remuneration and will receive no remuneration for her action, even though she is continually present at her husband’s side.”
He added: “This is just a question of transparency.”
Macron, whose popularity has plunged after only three months in office, is also facing a challenge from defiant politicians who threaten to scupper a vote on his “morality law” curtailing certain of their privileges including the right to employ relatives.
The new legislation, aimed at cleaning up French public life after a series of scandals, was a pillar of Macron’s presidential campaign, but needs an absolute majority of 289 out of 577 MPs in the Assemblée Nationale. Since the vote was postponed last Thursday, the original date for the end of the parliamentary session, many MPs have gone on holiday.
Members of the governing La République en Marche are under orders to be present for the vote on Wednesday before the Assemblée Nationale goes into the summer recess, but not all will comply.
One LREM rebel Jean-Michel Clément is refusing to return to Paris to vote. He dismissed the morality law as “not a priority … useless and intellectually poor”.
“In any case, there’s not much point sitting with a fat majority when we’ve been ordered to keep quiet. Spending time sitting on the benches saying nothing is not my idea of parliamentary life,” Clément told France Info radio.
Jean-Christophe Lagarde, MP for Les Centristes party, told Le Parisien the vote could wait until la rentrée – the mass return to work in September after the summer holidays.
“If the vote has been delayed it’s because of a mess-up by La République en Marche! We could have waited until la rentrée to vote, but the government wants to grab headlines with a stupid bill right in the middle of August.”