While Michelle Obama benevolent smile seems to be omnipresent, searching the internet for Europe’s first ladies brings rather poor results. Headlines concerning partners and spouses of European leaders, dominating European media in early 2014, focused on the nasty break-up of French president Francois Hollande and his former partner Valerie Trierweiler. Do we witness a cultural change in the perception of First Spouse.
Originally, the term First Lady referred to the wife of the American president. Nowadays, the Anglicism is used for female partners of heads of states and governments worldwide. In some languages the term is translated – francophone countries have a Première Dame, while the Spanish speaking world calls their first ladies Primera Dama.
Meanwhile, the increasing number of male counterparts – husbands and partners of elected female leaders – are titled First Husband (in Germany) or First Gentleman, though there is still some semantic debate evolving around the term. The husband of Australia’s former prime minister Julia Gillard, was frequently named the country’s First Bloke.
According to a CNN report, most spouses of heads of state in Europe are not in the spotlight and do not campaign with their partners. “We are talking about two different cultures”, the U.S. news channel quotes Armelle Le Bras-Chopard, a French political science professor. “In the U.S. men who are presidential candidates are always married, and their wives participate in their campaigns. Once they have been elected, their wives, the children and the dog are all visible”.
In contrast to the U.S., the position of the first spouse is a non-formal institution without legal grounds in most European countries. While there aren’t any clear rules which functions are connected and who is entitled to it, the first spouse nevertheless has access to tax payers’ money to run a “First Family’s” household. Usually, the title is given to the current official partner of the country’s highest ranked politician. Eventually, it is the media and the public discourse that crowns the first lady or gentleman. Depending on the political system this might be the partner of the president or prime minister. However, often this distinction is rather vague as the formally highest statesman or stateswoman does not necessarily coincide with the de facto most influential one.
While in France the role of the first lady has still been more prominent than in most other European countries, even there the idea of a woman giving up her career in order to become First Lady is becoming less and less acceptable. ‘’In societies in which divorce and partnerships are more frequent and in which there will inevitably be a gay man or woman as head of state, the concept of First Spouse seems increasingly anachronistic’’, the CNN article concludes.
The wives and husbands of many European leaders are independent – financially as well as in their opinions. They have gained themselves a status through their own profession and acheivements, their surnames often do not reveal their relationship with the famous politician and their jobs don’t even leave them time for becoming a PR instrument of their political influential significant other.
Valerie Trierweiler, who has never been married to her then partner, president Francois Hollande, had been hospitalised for days after his affair with an actress became public. Since then, the position of the Première Dame has remained vacant. Hollande stated that there won’t be any first lady by his side in the future. Trierweiler, a political talk show host and journalist, represents the change that the role of Europe’s first spouses have undergone.
German chancellor Angela Merkel’s husband Joachim Sauer was watching his wife’s inauguration on the TV screen in his office. The professor of quantum chemistry has refused to quit his job or exchange it for charity work and other tasks connected to being the country’s first man. Sauer announced that he wouldn’t give any interviews that are not related to his research but merely focus on his role as Merkel’s husband.
Are there any counter examples of first ladies in Europe living up to a traditional, ceremonial and representative role of a cultural ambassador and organiser of charity events? Jolanta Kwaśniewska, Polish first lady from 1995 till 2005, still remains a beautiful and educated saint in the collective memory of the country.
Is Kwaśniewska a phase-out model? Has the First Lady concept reached its expiry date in Europe?