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Cecilia Sarkozy and son Louis enter the Elysee Palace as her husband Nicolas prepares to take office. (David Vincent/Associated Press)In Depth: French Politics

C残ilia Sarkozy

When the first lady is a dame

Last Updated May 22, 2007

By Genevieve Oger

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 ballot round.

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 secret lives of French leaders

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 American way.

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.

Duelling affairs

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.

Not your average first lady

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 events.

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 rarely heard.

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.