PARIS (AP) — In a break with French tradition, centrist presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has created an inseparable team with his wife Brigitte, who is fierily campaigning by his side, a move more often seen on American political stages than in France.
The 39-year-old independent maverick is increasingly considered the front-runner in France's two-round April 23-May 7 presidential election. Polls suggest Macron could win over far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is expected to score high after conservative candidate Francois Fillon lost ground amid corruption allegations.
Macron, a former French economy minister, is campaigning on pro-free market, pro-European views. And unlike many French politicians who prefer to keep their private life private, he is publicly appearing with his wife.
Brigitte Trogneux, 63, attends her husband's rallies and public events and Macron doesn't hide that she is also his close political adviser. She is his former high school theater teacher, 24 years his senior.
France's potential next first lady recently joined Macron on a campaign stage, kissing him and thanking the crowd in a Paris theater.
If elected, "she will then have this role, this place," Macron declared. "Not behind, not hidden ... she will be by my side."
Macron and Trogneux have the same difference in age as U.S. President Donald Trump, 70, and his wife Melania, 46 —but the rarity of a much younger husband has drawn lots of attention. Some observers say it may boost Macron's image as a modern, outspoken and unconventional new figure in the French politics.
Macron met Trogneux when he was 17 and she taught French literature in his high school in his hometown of Amiens. A married mother of three at the time, she ran the theater club that he belonged to. A few years later, she divorced and joined Macron in Paris, where he completed his studies at the National School of Administration (ENA), one of France's most prestigious schools, in 2004.
In a video of their 2007 wedding, broadcast by French television, Macron thanked his wife's children for accepting him. He said they may not be "a quite normal couple — even if I don't like that adjective much — but a couple that exists."
Tiphaine Auzirere, one of Trogneux's daughters, now publicly supports her stepfather's campaign.
The couple has appeared four times on the front page of celebrity magazine Paris Match in the last year. They told the magazine they enjoy spending time with their seven grandchildren in their family home in Le Touquet, a chic seaside resort in northern France.
French gossip magazines scrutinize — and generally praise — Trogneux' cutting-edge style, which includes mini-skirts, jeans and leather trousers.
Last month, Macron denied rumors that he is gay — mentioning his wife's daily presence.
"Since she shares my life from morning to night, her only question is how, physically, I would manage," he joked.
Another French presidential candidate's wife has recently made the headlines — and not in a positive way. The very discreet Penelope Fillon suddenly drew media attention amid revelations that for years she held a government-paid job as parliamentary aide for her husband, the conservative Fillon. She was previously seen as a housewife, the mother of five children, and not involved in politics.
Fillon was handed preliminary charges last week for allegedly using taxpayers' money to pay family members — his wife and two children — for jobs that may not have existed. Aside from the fraud allegation, the charge is damning because Fillon has campaigned on a platform to cut government spending.
Le Pen, the far-right leader of the National Front, has two ex-husbands and three children and is now in a relationship with the vice president of her party, Louis Aliot, but they are not often seen together.
Socialist presidential candidate Benoit Hamon also keeps his partner and their two children away from his political life.
While France's first lady doesn't have an official role, there hasn't been a presidential spouse in the Elysee Palace since 2012, when former President Nicolas Sarkozy and his supermodel wife Carla Bruni left.
President Francois Hollande entered office that year with his girlfriend Valerie Trierweiler at his side, but she left him after a tabloid magazine exposed Hollande's secret affair with actress Julie Gayet in 2014. Gayet has never publicly appeared by Hollande's side.