Roger Cohen joined The New York Times in 1990. He was a foreign correspondent for more than a decade before becoming acting foreign editor on September 11, 2001, and foreign editor six months later.
Since 2004 he has written a column for the Times-owned International Herald Tribune, first for the news pages and then, since 2007, for the Op-Ed page. In 2009 he was named a columnist of The New York Times.
Mr. Cohen has written “Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo” (Random House, 1998), an account of the wars of Yugoslavia‘s destruction, and “Soldiers and Slaves: American POWs Trapped by the Nazis Final Gamble” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). He has also cowritten a biography of General Norman Schwarzkopf, “In the Eye of the Storm” (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1991).
PARIS - This is a city of stolen moments, its romance tied to realism about the vagaries of the heart. Nothing surprises. Little is judged. In the realm of sex and coupling, a shrug of the shoulders is what you get from the French. Or as they would put it with dismissive bluntness: “Bof.”
Intimacy, for the French, is nobody else’s business. A strong respect for privacy prevails. It is combined with reluctance to attach any moral baggage to people’s love lives. The effect is liberating. France does sex and food with aplomb. Guilt is not really its thing.
People come to France for its beauty, but what finally beguiles them is its civilization, at once formal and sensual, an art of living and loving.
I have been thinking of this non-judgmental French gift as the newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte, prepare to move into the Elysee Palace next week. They are an unusual couple. He is 39; she is 64. They met, as everyone knows by now, when he was a teenager and she was his drama teacher, a married woman with three children. Macron, through her, now has seven grandchildren whom he embraces as his own.
To all of which the chief French response has been: Who cares? There has been a celebration, particularly among women, of the fact that the norm of the older man with the much younger wife has been challenged. (The Macron age difference is roughly the same as between President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania.) Macron told Le Parisien that, “If I were 20 years older than my wife, nobody would have thought for a single second that I couldn’t be” an intimate partner. He’s right.
There have been magazine pieces about the couple, including an interview with Brigitte in Paris Match. As Le Monde put it, “It is together that this atypical couple scaled the steps of power. Never has the wife of a candidate been as present in a presidential campaign.” But prurience and sexism have been in short supply.
Macron did have to quash a longstanding rumor, bolstered by a Russian website, that he is gay - and he did so with effective humor. Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine, ran a cartoon after the Macron victory of a heavily pregnant Brigitte with the caption: “He is going to perform miracles.” It has since taken a lot of heat on French social media for sexism (but of course Charlie gives equal-opportunity offense, which has long made it loved and hated, and for which some of its staff lost their lives).
What’s new in a French political context is that Macron and his wife cooperate so intensely. She is a principal adviser. She gave up a job as a French teacher to work with Macron when he became economy minister in 2014, and has remained at his side. For many, she has helped humanize the technocrat-banker with a tendency (now contained) for highfalutin jargon. Born into a provincial family of chocolatiers, she has good antennae for ‘‘la France profonde” (deep France.) Not since the song was released a half-century ago has a more emphatic affirmative answer been given to the Beatles’ question: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m sixty-four?”
At the Elysee in recent decades, spousal convergence of the Macron variety has been rare. Francois Hollande, who will hand over the office on Sunday to Macron, left his companion, Valerie Trierweiler, early in his presidency for the actress Julie Gayet. The mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, has meanwhile served in his cabinet.
No sooner was Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, installed at the Elysee than he split up with his wife, Cecilia Ciganer; later he married Carla Bruni. Jacques Chirac and his wife had separate apartments. Francois Mitterrand led a double life; his wife and mistress were both at his funeral.
The French have shrugged. That’s life. That’s passion. They are not orderly.
I was chatting about all this to Sarah Cleveland, a distinguished American law professor on sabbatical in Paris from Columbia University. She recalled how, in ninth grade, at school in Birmingham, Ala., she was made to study the reproduction of earthworms at considerable length. But when it came to the chapter on human reproduction, the embarrassed teacher said: “Go study this at home. You won’t be tested.” Nobody did, of course.
Her teenage son and daughter have had a different experience at school in Paris. “There’s a straightforward no-nonsense approach to sex education. In a recent segment my daughter had, students - boys and girls - acted out scenarios to deal with issues of consent and unwanted overtures and saying no. They’ve had classes on rape, on masturbation, on sexually transmitted diseases, even positions for sex. As a result I feel my kids are not embarrassed or afraid. They are better prepared to interact with the world. They’ve learned that sex is a normal aspect of human existence that people need to know about.”
That knowledge, that comfort, is very French, as are Macron and his wife. Theirs is a liberating victory.