Sarkozy and his model wife

France is giddy over its new first couple, who have been likened to the Kennedys, but are they ripe for scandal?

Published May 28, 2007 10:44AM (EDT)

Flash guns blazed and cameramen jostled as the star strode down the red carpet. No, this wasn't Cannes, where beauties of the silver screen such as Angelina Jolie or Gong Li were gathering for the world-famous film festival. This was Paris, the Elysée Palace, to be precise, and there she was: the capricious and mysterious Cécilia Sarkozy, who rules her second husband, the new president of France, as he readily admits.

Flanked by her two blond daughters and Sarkozy's two sons, France's new first lady, wearing a shimmering satin dress, added glamour to the proceedings as former President Jacques Chirac handed power to his freshly elected successor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The press scrutinized her every gesture: the public kiss, how she adjusted her husband's tie, how she suppressed a tear. Cécilia Sarkozy, who once worked as a model for fashion house Schiaparelli, was the leading lady as well as the heart and soul of this royal pageantry. The next day a photo of her and her husband graced the cover of newsmagazine L'Express, while popular French magazine VSD asked, "What role will she play?"

This "première dame de France" embodies the generational change her husband has evoked and the cultural break with the leaden era of Chirac. France is captivated by this couple with their five children, ages 10 to 22. (In addition to the four mentioned previously, they have one of their own.) It's a "family in touch with the times," wrote newspaper Le Figaro. They remind the nation of the Kennedys.

But new cracks are already emerging in this glittering façade. Paris had indulged in elaborate speculation over whether Cécilia would even attend the inauguration because she was conspicuous by her absence on the evening of the election. And when she finally did appear at her husband's side at his victory celebration on the Place de la Concorde in Paris at about 11 p.m., she seemed detached and joyless.

What was wrong with her? It was rumored that her two daughters had to persuade her to attend and that she flew in from London at the last minute. Even Maureen Dowd, the well-known columnist with the New York Times, noticed that Mme. Sarkozy's attire -- a gray top and white trousers -- seemed oddly inappropriate. A friend called it her "escape outfit."

Perhaps this explains why Cécilia didn't vote, an omission that was all the more disconcerting because she even had her own office at Sarkozy's headquarters on Rue d'Enghien during the campaign. Her failure to vote only became a political issue when Journal du Dimanche retracted a story, apparently in response to pressure from Sarkozy, about Cécilia's seeming lack of civic responsibility. The paper promptly denied it had acted under duress.

There are two things the French will probably have to get used to. The first is the new president's tendency to intervene with his friends in the newspaper business to stop them from printing unfavorable articles. The second is that his personal life will give him plenty of reasons to intervene. It may be to Sarkozy's benefit that the French attitude toward private morality is generally more accepting than elsewhere. Things that the French tend to tolerate would trigger national crises in other countries.

Unlike in Germany, whose former chancellor and foreign minister were married four and five times, respectively, tumultuous marriages, affairs and illegitimate children are part of the colorful diversity of life in France. When former President Bill Clinton had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the French could only shake their heads at the ensuing uproar in America, calling it Protestant prudishness. What was a bit of oral sex in the Oval Office compared, for example, with the double life of former French President François Mitterrand?

Mitterrand had a mistress and paid for her accommodations with taxpayers' money. Shortly before he died, when he admitted to having an illegitimate daughter by her, the revelation only served to give the man many in France referred to as "God" a more worldly image. Mitterrand's successor, Chirac, also had a reputation as a bon vivant.

President Sarkozy has played an active role in the public speculation about his private life. He has repeatedly drawn his wife into the limelight, praising her as his closest confidante. But the French tabloid press only played along while their marriage appeared to be intact. In 2005, when his wife had an affair with Richard Attias, an advertising executive, and the magazine Paris Match printed a photo of the couple in New York, the jilted husband was determined to exact his revenge.

Alain Genestar, the magazine's editor in chief, eventually had to go. It was so desired by Arnaud Lagardère, the owner of Paris Match. Lagardère is a friend of the new president's and apparently willing to do him favors. Since then the industrialist has kept his editorial staff on a short leash, revealing a clear preference for Sarkozy. Suddenly Paris Match was writing devotedly about how the Sarkozys had spent the night after the election in a hotel suite, behaving "like lovers." The description is so poetic that it could just as well have flowed from the president's pen.

When it comes to his wife, Sarkozy is soft, helpless and impossibly unforgiving. He calls her "my strength and my Achilles' heel." Regardless of whether this portrayal is true, the French public likes it.

Sarkozy is about to embark on an ambitious plan to reform France. But the country seems more interested in whether Cécilia will move into the Elysée, whom she socializes with and how the couple behaves in public.

Cécilia is approaching her new role with mixed feelings. "I don't see myself as first lady," she said some time ago. "It bores me. I am not politically correct. I walk around in jeans and I don't fit into this mold."

The Sarkozys spent the evening of Nicolas' triumph winding down with friends at a nightclub called ShowCase. A photographer from Paris Match happened to be there, purely by chance, of course. Sarkozy performed a few wooing dance steps in front of his wife. Cécilia, lounging on a sofa, watched her husband, half flattered and half deprecating with her index finger raised.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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By Stefan Simons

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