Next month, French voters will choose between an inexperienced independent centrist and a far-right nationalist in their presidential runoff election. Donald Trump has expressed support for the latter, but he shares at least one major similarity with the former: a 24-year spousal age gap.*
At 39, Emmanuel Macron would be France’s youngest-ever president. His wife, Brigitte Trogneux, just turned 64. The two met when Macron was 15 years old; Trogneux was his high-school drama teacher. After putting off the young Macron’s advances for a while, Trogneux eventually divorced her husband—the father of her three children—and moved to Paris to be with Macron, who’d left his hometown to finish high school in the capital city. They married more than a decade after meeting, in 2007.
Media accounts of their once-illicit relationship have offered it as evidence of Macron’s daring personality and willingness to break with tradition, qualities that helped make him a presidential frontrunner without a political party or any experience in elected office. “Their love affair was the kind of audacious undertaking that has defined Mr. Macron’s life and career,” the New York Times reports. “His sheer drive, his focus and his willingness to leapfrog in a country where most success is built step by step make him more like the entrepreneurs he admires than a typical politician.” The Associated Press writes that, “from his teenage romance with a teacher to his recent ambition to become president, Emmanuel Macron often is described as unconventional and tenacious.”
This is a strange way to frame a romantic relationship between a teenager and his 40-year-old teacher. If Macron were a young woman who’d seduced her male high-school teacher away from his wife and family, her determination and ultimate success would not be proffered as signs of her leadership skills, the beginning of a life as an effective politician. She would be cast as an opportunistic Jezebel with daddy issues who slept her way into every political role she got. If Macron were an ex-teacher who’d left his wife to be with a teenage student, we’d rightly cast doubt on his maturity and morals. Depending on the details of the case, I might think he should have lost his teaching job and wonder which combination of possible gross reasons caused him to reject women his own age.
But, because Macron is a man and the younger party, his love story is framed as confirmation of his perseverance and maverick streak. The AP quotes Olivier Mongin, a writer and longtime friend of Macron’s, as calling his buddy “someone who took risks in his life” by choosing to pursue Trogneux without his parents’ support. “There is a life experience here; there is something a bit hard,” Mongin said. Accounts of Macron’s courtship show him to be unwavering in his resolve to woo his teacher. “She tried initially to discourage him, but he was determined and she was eventually smitten,” the Times reports, quoting a TV interview in which Trogneux recalled, “He called me all the time. … Little by little he conquered all my resistance in a manner that was incredible—with patience.”
Swap Macron and Trogneux’s gender again, and the story of a goal-oriented romancer would be spun as a conventional tale of an unhinged, desperate homewrecker. Conquering resistance through patient pursuit would, to most observers, seem like obsessed-stalker behavior coming from a young girl and sexual-predator behavior coming from an older man. Macron’s disregard of Trogneux’s initial rejection—and his dogged fixation on making her his girlfriend despite her marriage and his age—don’t ring such alarm bells because we’re far more used to seeing older men with way-younger women. When older women end up with way-younger men, the women are still often pegged as the desperate, self-unaware ones—“cougars,” as Macron’s detractors have called Trogneux on Twitter. Men are instead applauded for either bagging a hot teacher or loving over-35 women despite their accumulation of life experience, knowledge, and wrinkles. Any teenager, audacious or not, might find herself in a student-teacher relationship that raises some eyebrows and violates statutory-rape laws. But if that relationship is to bolster a political candidate’s list of qualifications, the student had better be a man.
*Update, Apr. 24, 2017: The full transcript of the linked AP interview makes clear that while Trump called Le Pen the “strongest” candidate and predicted she would do well, he also said “I am not endorsing her.” This post has been updated accordingly.