LETTER FROM PARIS: When a royal happy birthday turns sour.
Byline: Zafar Masud
LAST Thursday Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president in France's history, turned 40. But according to a number of leaked out scoops in pop dailies and magazines, his wife Brigitte had organised not only the birthday but also a Christmas party, both in advance, in a rather secret but royal manner out of the public's attention last weekend at the Chateau of Chambord in central France, some 180 kilometres south of Paris.
Reacting to increasing pressure from the press to confirm or deny the reports, an Elysee Palace spokesman half-heartedly verified the rumours but warned: 'Be careful! As there was no cake cutting ritual, this cannot be called a birthday celebration. You could say it was a Christmas party in advance as Madame Macron's children were given many presents during the ceremony.'
The spokesman also denied reports of the anniversary having been held at the chateau: 'It was done in a tourist resort close to the Chateau of Chambord and not inside the chateau itself. The guests included, apart from the president and his wife, the children and grandchildren of Madame Macron and about 15 close relatives.'
Brigitte Macron is 24 years older than the French president. She was mother of three grown-up children from an earlier marriage when she wedded him in 2007.
Central France's major daily newspaper La Nouvelle Republique confirmed this version of the Christmas celebration, but added: 'Following the party the president and his family and friends moved to the chateau where the terrace and a few rooms can be rented by anyone for 625 euros a day. They later had lunch in an expensive restaurant called Le Bacchus and then went to see a baby panda born in the zoo of Beauval four months ago and baptized as Yuan Meng by the first lady herself.'
These details may sound run-of-the-mill or even boring to many readers, but reactions in the political circles here in France were immediate and often explosive. Jean-Luc Melanchon, founder of the France Insoumise party said: 'For someone who believes in democracy these royalist ceremonies make me, to put it politely, desperate. Celebrating a birthday in a place like Chambord is trying to impose oneself on the people of France as the monarch of the country.'
UMP leader Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who closely lost last summer's election to Macron, remarked that the new president is rapidly creating an oligarchy that is totally cut off from the people of France.
Eventually, the president came out of his silence. With a certain sense of ironic humour he chose the Chateau of Chambord itself as the lieu to talk to the correspondents from a number of dailies and news agencies.
He said: 'My critics are endlessly looking for symbols of consternation in everything that I do. This chateau is much more than a simple reference to the French monarchy. It also represents the history of the republic, not to mention many of its traditions such as nature, biodiversity and hunting. It is wrong to say I am only interested in the royalty and nothing else.'
The president's royal tergiversations notwithstanding, he counts on a fairly honourable approval rating. Latest opinion polls give him 52 per cent of positive votes. This is much higher than his predecessor Francois Holland's endorsements; he never scored more than 17pc in repeated opinion polls during his five years in the Elysee Palace.