France's chattering classes have a new subject to chatter about now
that 52-year-old conservative Nicolas Sarkozy has won the country's
presidential election. The buzz is not so much over the man himself, but his
elusive and glamorous wife C残ilia.
"You can just tell the relationship is on the
rocks," one Parisian recently whispered to me. "She didn't even look
at him when he kissed her at the presidential inauguration" a week ago.
Rumours of marital discord have been circulating in the
country's newsrooms for weeks. But they became even more insistent after the
press reported C残ilia didn't vote for her husband in the second and final
The public electoral logs show she didn't bother exercising
her civic right. Odd for a politician's wife — but positively suspect in
the case of the new first lady.
Like many in France, the Sarkozys are a recomposed family. The
two met when Nicolas Sarkozy, then mayor of the tony Paris suburb
Neuilly-sur-Seine, performed the marriage ceremony for C残ilia and her first
husband, former television personality Jacques Martin.
The young mayor was instantly smitten, he would later allow,
with the statuesque C残ilia, a former model and PR executive. Five years later,
he won her heart.
Both left their respective mates, with whom they each had two
children. They finally married in 1996 and had a son Louis a year later.
The French generally consider the private lives of their
politicians, well, private. They're certainly not held to a higher standard
than their constituents.
Former president Fran腔is Mitterrand, for example, managed to
keep the existence of an illegitimate daughter he had with his mistress mostly
secret for about 20 years. The wider world only discovered her at his funeral,
when the official wife and mistress mourned side by side.
More recently, outgoing president Jacques Chirac admitted in a
just-published book that he did his best to keep his extramarital affairs as "discreet
as possible." The press helped him do that, by leaving that aspect of his
life deliberately unreported.
But that unwritten rule doesn't seem to apply to the new
presidential couple. Perhaps it's because Nicolas Sarkozy broke with French
tradition by putting his family life forward in such a public and North
When he first became minister of the interior in 2002, he
invited television cameras to film his wife and young son in his office. The
couple appeared together in several photo reportages, in both gossip rags and
serious news magazines. C残ilia even had her own office at the interior
ministry and an official title.
She turned up so often in the news, even Sarkozy supporters
talked of overexposure. So when she left him in 2005, the press felt fully
justified in reporting their marital troubles, just as it had reported on their
marital bliss a few months before.
The personal crisis came to a head in August
2005, when a photo of C残ilia and her lover, Richard Attias, in New York City
appeared on the cover of celebrity publication Paris Match. (Don't feel too
sorry for the jilted husband. He was having his own affair with a Paris
journalist, but was never photographed.)
Several months later, the owner of the magazine, billionaire
Arnaud Lagardere, by chance a close friend of Nicolas Sarkozy, fired Paris
Match editor Alain Genestar, citing "ethical differences."
The media baron reportedly stepped in again recently, when his
Sunday newspaper, Le journal du dimanche, killed a story on the fact C残ilia
hadn't voted in the second round. Ironically, pulling the incriminating story
brought the incident even more publicity.
The Sarkozy's reconciliation in 2006 was just as public.
Sarkozy again invited photographers to document the couple's new-found
understanding in photo spreads in several celebrity publications.
The Sarkozys promised more discretion and have toned their
lifestyle down to a large extent. C残ilia has been practically invisible during
the presidential campaign, appearing at less than a handful of strategic
In addition to very public embarrassment, the couple's
travails have also brought them a certain amount of public sympathy. Their
struggles to make their relationship work resemble those of many ordinary
French people, who juggle career pressures and family obligations.
"May those who have never had marital problems cast the
first stone," argues Marie-Claude Zitrone, a 48-year-old mother of two and
stepmother to one, from Marseilles. "For me the Sarkozys are like any
other modern couple, they form a recomposed family and you sense she has her
own personality and doesn't live only in her husband's shadow."
The question for many people, though, is what kind of first
lady C残ilia will turn out to be. In a 2005 interview, she said the idea of
becoming first lady bored her tremendously. "I'm not politically
correct", she said, "I wear jeans, cargo pants and cowboy boots and
don't fit into a mould."
The role of first lady isn't clearly defined in France,
according to contemporary historian Michel Rapoport. "It's not within
French tradition for presidents to expose their wives," he said, certainly
not the way it's done in other countries.
Bernadette Chirac focused on charity causes, raising money for
hospitals and supporting her husband during electoral campaigns. Danielle
Mitterrand was more political, raising awareness about international
development and human rights issues.
The patrician Anne-Aymone Giscard d'Estaing stayed largely in
the background, after her frosty tone in early televised appearances made her a
political liability for her husband. Charles de Gaulle's wife, Yvonne, was
largely a mystery figure to the French public — sometimes seen, but
Since there's no official model for C残ilia Sarkozy, it will
be up to her to define her role. Living under public scrutiny is never easy, as
the Sarkozys have learned the hard way.
Canadian Genevieve Oger is a freelance correspondent in
Paris for CBC and other international media.