French first lady missing in action

Times Staff Writer

paris -- The president’s wife has gone missing. And the question of the day in France on Friday was: Has she gone for good?

Cecilia Sarkozy didn’t vote for her husband, Nicolas, in May; she didn’t accompany him to lunch with the Bushes in Maine last summer; and the woman at Sarkozy’s side at a celebratory dinner after France’s quarter- finals victory in the Rugby World Cup a week ago? Not his wife, but one of her closest friends.

The chic former model, in fact, has done nothing official since Bastille Day in July. And this weekend she is reportedly at a $1,000-a-night spa in Geneva while he’s in Paris rooting for France in the rugby semifinals.


On Friday, a journalist for the newspaper L’Est Republicain, citing sources close to the presidential palace, reported that the couple was definitely getting divorced -- something the rest of the media have hinted at but not quite said for weeks. “Where has Cecilia Gone?” Le Parisien asked last week.

The French are a tolerant people. Their presidents have had mistresses and even fathered illegitimate children and life went on. But divorce? How . . . conventional. How . . . bourgeois. How . . . unconventional, actually.

“But we are ready to accept a divorce at the Elysee Palace,” Christine Clerc, a French “first marriage” expert and author, declared Friday in a phone interview. “In fact, it’s the first time we can see it like this -- with our very own eyes. Before, the private lives of presidents were all hidden and many things were forbidden to be even discussed. Now we say, ‘The first lady is gone.’ ”

About the only person who didn’t seem to be letting go was the president.

Normally, first ladies fill in for presidents, but when this 49-year-old first lady backed out of an appearance on a popular TV show Sunday, it was the 52-year-old president who turned up, and brought the conversation around to his “fantastic wife.”

“He seemed to be a husband trying to return his wife,” Clerc said. “It was rather amusing and also tragic.”

The Sarkozys have always had a less-than-placid relationship.

Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz, a onetime political aide, was married and had two small children when the two fell in love in 1987. Nicolas Sarkozy, then mayor of a Paris suburb, was also married with two children and passionate about politics. They moved in together, but it took several years of divorce wrangling for Sarkozy before they were able to marry in 1996. A few years later, after he became interior minister, he set her up in the office next to his as an aide-de-camp.


But in 2005, she ran away with another man to New York for eight months. While she was gone, he took up with another woman only to dump her to lure Cecilia back.

“She saw him as completely absorbed by politics, unbearable to live with,” Clerc said, “and I think she wanted more.”

Though credited with orchestrating his rise, she rarely campaigned for him, appeared unsmiling at his inauguration and wore Prada instead of a French designer as is customary. She would be her own first lady, was the message, and she has ignored protocol at every turn.

Cecilia Sarkozy is not the first reluctant French first lady. But for appearances, her predecessors, more or less, behaved in public, and the media, more or less, mocked them only through innuendo.

For now, that is changing.

“It’s all very hypocritical of the media to spread rumors about the president’s marriage and at the same time say they’re waiting for a public announcement to really discuss it,” said Laid Sammari, who wrote the story about an impending divorce for Friday’s L’Est Republicain. Presidential spokesman David Martinon refused to comment, insisting the Elysee didn’t respond to “press rumors.”

“If it wasn’t true,” Sammari retorted, “then why didn’t they just deny it and say, ‘The couple is all fine, they’re going for the weekend to Venice’ -- or even L.A.?”


But the marriage may not be over yet. In his 2006 book, “Testimony,” Sarkozy wrote of his Cecilia, “We cannot, nor do we know how to, distance ourselves from each other. It’s not that we haven’t tried. . . . But it’s impossible!”


Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times’ Paris Bureau contributed to this report.