PARIS — A hullabaloo over the new French president’s desire to formalize the role of France’s first lady is a reminder that being married to a world leader isn’t for timid types.

Below, read how some countries approach the issue — and how some first spouses have broken the shackles of protocol or retreated to the mountains to escape scrutiny.

FRONT AND CENTER

The United States sets the standard for first ladydom. America’s first lady assumes a formal public role that comes with a White House office, but makes it impossible to maintain an ordinary lifestyle.

Michelle Obama left her job as a lawyer to campaign for healthier children. Melania Trump has kept a lower profile so far, but is expected to accompany her husband at major public events and summits.

Few other countries have such codified expectations.

While French first ladies have taken on an increasingly public role, a proposal by President Emmanuel Macron to grant a special budget to finance his wife’s official activities has been met with an online petition of protest that is quickly gaining signatures.

UNDER THE RADAR

In many countries, political spouses stay out of the public eye.

Greece doesn’t seem to care that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s partner Peristera Pizania rarely appears at official events. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s wife continued working as a schoolteacher in Tuscany while he was in office. Wives of Spanish prime ministers only make the news when they go into politics themselves.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is single — but even if he were coupled up, his compatriots might not notice, since Dutch politicians tend to keep their private lives out of the public sphere.

LOSE-LOSE SITUATION

It’s often difficult however to find the right balance between public action and a private life, especially for presidential wives scrutinized on social media for what they wear as much as what they do or say.

The wife of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Elke Buedenbender, stopped working as a judge out of concern for judicial independence. One of her predecessors, Bettina Wulff, published a book complaining about the role.

The position of first lady in Romania remains sensitive due to the legacy of Elena Ceausescu, who had a major role during the discredited communist regime of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Her successors have been expected to remain discreet and quietly supportive instead.

Current Romanian first lady Carmen Iohannis was subjected to a barrage of criticism for clothes deemed too daring for a president’s wife, and for holidays deemed too glamorous.

She now lives in the couple’s home city of Sibiu and is rarely seen in public. The Iohannis no longer go on foreign vacations and instead go hiking in Romania’s Carpathians.

WHAT ABOUT THE MEN?

First spouses remain overwhelmingly women, though that is changing.

At a recent NATO summit, the husband of Luxembourg’s gay prime minister was among those alongside Melania Trump on the spouses’ summit program.

And Europe’s two biggest economies have women leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May. But their husbands raised no eyebrows for sticking with their jobs, and both successfully avoid the limelight.

Some men, too, bristle at being reduced to “the husband of.”

Denmark’s Prince Henrik, married to Queen Margrethe, has long complained that he is stuck with the title of prince and couldn’t be named king. The 83-year-old Henrik announced last week he won’t be buried next to his queen in protest at what he sees as unequal treatment.


Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Berlin, Alison Mutler in Bucharest, Mike Corder in The Hague, Jan Olsen in Copenhagen, Derek Gatopoulos in Athens, and Fran D’Emilio in Rome contributed

Author photo
ANGELA CHARLTON
The AP is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, as a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members, it can maintain its single-minded focus on newsgathering and its commitment to the highest standards of objective, accurate journalism.