Are French presidents sexy? The question is back in vogue because Emmanuel Macron was photographed this week showing off his chest rug while relaxing after a campaign rally in Marseille.
Smiling toothily for the camera, as if he was Jean-Paul Belmondo (who, as it happens, preferred to shave his chest), he was clearly hoping to maximise his homme-fatal look in the run-up to Sunday’s second round of the presidential elections. The buttons of his shirt are undone almost as far as his waist. Next to him sit not one, but two smartphones. All he needed was one of those round medallions on a gold chain, complete with an arrow pointing upwards and to the right, for us to be transported back to the 1970s.
Writing in the Telegraph this week, Guy Kelly made reference to the President’s “war chest,” likening its owner to Tom Selleck, the markedly hirsute star of Magnum, P.I., and Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. Both images are as cheesy as they come, with just a whiff of over-ripe Brie.
What can Brigitte, Macron’s wife, have thought when she saw the photograph? Two of her children were born around the time Saturday Night Fever and Grease were huge movie hits? Was she the Olivia Newton-John to her future husband’s budding John Travolta? Thankfully, we may never know. What we do know is that, despite the yawning 23-year age gap between them, they remain a happy and faithful couple. Even Macron’s enemies – though not, one imagines, Marine Le Pen – were touched by the chivalry towards his wife shown by Macron at campaign events.
The point is that while Macron may look like a classic lothario, he is in fact a faithful husband, something that could not be said of almost any of his predecessors.
Take François Hollande (please!), president from 2012 to 2017. Hollande’s somewhat goofy appearance – more Eric Morecambe than Magnum P.I. – concealed a record as quite the ladies’ man. Boris Johnson, we were warned by former home secretary Amber Rudd, was not the sort of chap you could trust to drive you home from a party. Hollande, who has never married, got round the problem by being chauffeured to and from assignations on the back of a motor scooter. Whether he could be trusted in the Elysée is a question better put to former applicants for the role of First Squeeze, Valerie Trierweiler and Ségolène Royal.
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Jacques Chirac, an old-school roué, was at least discreet about his indiscretions. Doubtless those who knew him best were aware of his proclivities, but it was only when he left office after 12 years as President that his penchant for le rumpy-pumpy became more widely known. As mayor of Paris, he had a bed installed in an official coach that was in effect a mobile bordello. But though he was insatiable, he was also fastidious. He didn’t like to smell of sex – especially if his wife was around. Before being driven back to the Élysée from his various brief encounters, he liked to freshen up, leading his chauffeur to call him “Monsieur Five Minutes, shower included”.
Nicolas Sarkozy, president before Hollande, had the distinction of marrying his second wife, Cécilia Ciganer-Albéniz, twice – once, as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, when he officiated at her wedding to her first husband, later, on his own account, following his divorce from wife number one, Marie-Dominique Culioli. Rumours abound of other relationships, but these need not detain us. The fact is, Sarkozy’s current wife, the crooner and fashion model Carla Bruni, remains under contract. “My husband will not return to politics,” she told the Journal du Dimanche, “because he doesn’t want a divorce. He is very much in love and he would have to trade me for someone else.”
Valérie Giscard d’Estaing was a philanderer on the grand scale, who liked to write up his dalliances as pulp fiction and is said to have encouraged the myth that he once exercised his presumed droit de seigneur, as President, with Diana, Princess of Wales. The nearest he came to scandal, however (if we discount the gift of diamonds from a notorious African dictator), was when he drove into a milk float shortly after dawn when half asleep at the wheel following a particularly exhausting encounter.
François Mitterrand was shameless. His liaisons with actresses, journalists, singers and others were legion, but at no stage dangereuses. They were simply accepted. He was a man, he was French and he had supreme power: ergo he could do as he pleased. “I will help you to live, you will help me to die,” he told his last mistress, 50 years his junior, not long before he succumbed to cancer in 1996, aged 79.
Above them all, of course, stands Le Grand Charles, Charles de Gaulle, founder and architect of the Fifth Republic and Alpha male to Macron’s Omega-3. De Gaulle, an impossibly tall army officer, married Yvonne Charlotte Anne-Marie Vendroux, a conservative Catholic who campaigned against prostitution, pornography and the televised display of nudity and sex, in April 1921 and remained true to her until his death in 1970.
The nature of their marriage might be seen in the manner of their meeting. On their first date, to an exhibition of paintings at the Grand Palais, De Gaulle accidentally spilled tea on her dress and was overcome with embarrassment. He apologised. She laughed. He knew she was the woman for him.
De Gaulle would have found the womanising of his successors demeaning but not in the least surprising. He was a soldier after all. He would, however, have drawn the line at unbuttoning his shirt and posing, legs splayed, for the cameras. “L’État c’est moi,” he might have thought to himself, echoing Louis XIV. “But would you look at the state of him!”