Beyond Hollande’s capacity for cruelty, the crisis in the French presidency says everything about the abject feebleness of the first lady concept. At a time when a glowing media image has never been more important for world leaders, many of their unelected consorts still knock about the corridors of power, and indeed the international stage, with an alarming lack of direction.
Even Michelle Obama, who trained as a lawyer, had no hope of practising on taking up the role. Now her main job is as “hostess of the White House”, allowing her to invite stars such as Beyoncé to her bashes, as she did last Saturday. Yes, Flotus has an office and a press secretary, but she has no salary and the majority of her tasks are decidedly shallow. As throughout history, first ladies around the world are largely required to be presentable escorts when called upon, and to make their husbands look good.
Michelle Obama has tried to make a difference, mainly through campaigns about obesity and other social ills. But it is as a winner of “best dressed” and “most inspiring” awards that she remains well-known. In this sense, popular perceptions of what a modern first lady does are sexist and trite. Michelle dances, she sings, she cries in appropriate situations and she is a close confidante of Oprah Winfrey. Thus highly educated, talented women such as her are effectively told to suspend their careers to become state-sponsored ladies who lunch.