Political vegetables

English: Michelle Obama with Carla Bruni-Sarkozy

For a while there – a short while – it looked as if the life of a political wife might be changing for the better. For a while, it looked as if having an IQ in three figures might be becoming less of an impediment to your spouse’s political progress.

In America, the vacant-eyed Laura Bush packed her bags and went back to Stepford, and the world greeted Michelle Obama, with her capable arms and her Harvard law degree. France, meanwhile, finally got rid of the exasperating Carla Bruni and replaced her as Premiere Dame with a woman with a master’s in political science from the Sorbonne and a 20-year career in journalism.

But any hopes that the era of simpering ‘n’ sympathy was over were quickly quelled. Michelle Obama is now using her doctorate in law to run a vegetable garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And in France, Valerie Trierweiler, who promised to revolutionise the office of first lady, has instead turned it into an embarrassing and unseemly cat fight.

It began when French president Francois Hollande pledged his support for his ex, former presidential candidate Segolene Royal, in her bid for a parliamentary seat in La Rochelle. Valerie was put out. She is reportedly jealous of Francois’s former partner, with whom he spent a quarter-century and who is mother of his four children. You might think it would be Segolene who would be jealous, as she is the one who lost both her man and her two chances of a residency in the Elysee Palace, but no.

Valerie took to the twitter machine (no modern-day melodrama being complete without a tweet) to back Segolene’s opponent instead. She wrote: “Courage to Olivier Falorni, who was not unworthy, who fights alongside Rochellais for so many years in a selfless commitment,” or as far as those of us with school French are concerned, that’s what she wrote.

Falorni won the electoral battle last weekend, with 63% of the vote, and Segolene, who has now lost more battles than Napoleon, was furious.

Without meaning to be unkind, Francois looks more like the sort of man who enjoys one of those cordial but lacklustre marriages that last 60 years. He doesn’t look the type to find himself in the middle of a humiliating middle-aged love triangle. But then this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a homely French politician cast into the spotlight by a striking woman. (All three characters in this drama are too old for it but, being French, the two women have been able to keep their cheekbones.)

Anyway, so much for a fresh, new, progressive intelligence in political life. Valerie promised to be a new broom, sweeping away all those silly expectations about trophy wives. Instead, people in France are now talking about Francois’s failure to “control” his girlfriend. It’s like ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. It’s as bad a setback as Hillary baking cookies, or Michelle Obama hoeing her life away.

To be fair, the photos of Michelle in her vegetable garden can be justified on the grounds that they might help to ensure that Mitt Romney’s wife doesn’t become the next Flotus. But that doesn’t stop you wondering why a man’s political struggle must entail a woman in the background waving radishes.

The First Lady has to be gracious, discreet, apolitical, stylish but not glamorous, and unambitious to the point of self-annihilation. She must be interested in: her husband, her children, the Nation’s Children, baking, interior design, world peace, and something to do with the environment, in more or less that order.

And, what does the First Gentleman have to be? Nothing. Look at Martin McAleese, who got away with having ostensibly no personality at all for 14 years. Denis Thatcher was famous portrayed as being interested in only gin and golf. And you may not know this, but Mister Angela Merkel is a quantum chemist who keeps himself to himself.

It’s easier for men to be invisible because people aren’t perpetually scrutinising how much weight they’re putting on. All the same, I think it only fair that political husbands be expected to conform to slightly demeaning gender stereotypes in the domestic field as well.

For instance, they should be obliged to demonstrate that they can tinker unproductively for days under the bonnet of a 1967 Austin Healey. They should have a proven ability to leave DIY projects unfinished, while being the supreme authority on the quality of those DIY projects left unfinished by other political husbands. They should build forts and train sets ‘for the kids to play with’.

Above all they should maintain a studied but polite indifference towards all the emotional dramas in their partners’ lives. This is something Francois will need to get the hang of – not as political spouse but as president.

Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 24 June 2012