Fiona McCade: Role of First Ladies has lost allure

TO MY knowledge, my husband has never had a job interview where he was asked: “So, what’s your wife like? Is her hair nice? Does she wear stylish clothes? Is she caring and sympathetic?”

Hollande is the man to blame, but Trierweilers antics have been embarrassing. Picture: AP
Hollande is the man to blame, but Trierweilers antics have been embarrassing. Picture: AP

Of course, I am all those things, but I wouldn’t want my husband to get the job simply because I’m so adorable. It wouldn’t be logical, would it, for his employment to depend upon my charms? Sadly, in the political world, things are different.

As French president François Hollande flaps from one catastrophic gaffe to another, like a floundering blobfish, it’s the ladies in his life that are taking centre stage. After all, they’re the interesting ones. Hollande himself is as charismatic as a wet haddock, but his ex-wife, Ségolène Royal, is a chic politician and former presidential candidate; his ex-girlfriend (officially still the First Lady, but we all know where this is headed) Valérie Trierweiler, is a glamorous journalist; and his latest squeeze, Julie Gayet, is an actress whose relationship with clothes could be described as on-off, but mostly off. They’re a fascinating bunch, but they don’t half detract from the business of running France.

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Hollande is the man to blame, but Trierweiler’s antics have been excruciatingly embarrassing. Eight days in hospital, followed by an ongoing recuperation at the luxury presidential weekend retreat? Just because she was dumped? The rest of us should be so lucky.

Hollande has hinted that the unofficial post (despite coming with an office, staff and annual budget of £17,000) of French First Lady may be abolished, and that’s the only sensible thing that the man has said in quite a while.

The bottom line is that First Ladies are a waste of space. I blame Jackie Kennedy, who was so practically perfect that she made presidential spouses important. Until she came along, the best Americans had experienced was worthy old Eleanor Roosevelt. Suddenly, there was a fairy princess in the White House and they’ve been praying for a replacement ever since.

Fast forward 50 years and now all First Ladies, across the globe, are under pressure to be gorgeous, accomplished and saintly – even when they’re plainly not, and even 
when they serve no useful purpose whatsoever. Too often, the focus is shifted from important political matters to what doesn’t matter – like the spouse and whether the designer label she’s wearing makes her look chunky.

First Ladies constantly steal the headlines, and somehow a myth has arisen that their opinions matter. Why else would poor Sarah Brown have been trotted out to persuade us of her husband’s all-round wondrousness? Someone, somewhere thought that if she stood up tall, with a glossy hairdo and a nice dress, and said “my husband; my hero” out loud, the rest of us might eventually believe that Gordon was a good guy. What they failed to realise was that we already knew Gordon was a good guy; the problem was that he was a rubbish prime minister. And even stylish and sympathetic Sarah couldn’t distract from that, so it would have been better for everyone if she’d stayed out of the limelight.

From Margaret Trudeau to Cherie Blair, and now Valérie Trierweiler, it’s clear that, more often than not, First Ladies’ first duty is to themselves and their own needs. But why not? They don’t serve us. They aren’t elected; they haven’t earned their place at the top. They are there because they’re loyal – sometimes – to their spouse, not their country. Even care-y, share-y, everyone’s BFF Michelle Obama has been accused of frittering millions of dollars of public money on holidays.

First Spouses should be irrelevant, and when they’re not, they usually become a liability. In Scotland, we’re lucky that our First Minister’s lady keeps an admirably low profile. In Italy, they were lucky that Silvio Berlusconi didn’t parade a different First Lady every day, with each one being announced via topless photoshoot on Canale 5.

If France scraps the role of First Lady, I hope other countries will follow suit. After all, we know that behind every successful man, there stands a woman. What we’d rather not know is that beside every successful politician stands a woman with great hair and stylish clothes, looking very caring and sympathetic, and wondering how much taxpayers’ money she’ll get to redecorate the weekend retreat.