On the same day that a massive strike crippled public transportation here, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, announced the end of their marriage.
On both fronts, public and personal, the president remained silent Thursday.
Concerning the one-day strike challenging Sarkozy’s plan to overhaul France’s public sector, the French leader had no comment as he left for a European Union meeting in Lisbon.
Of his plans to divorce, he spoke only through official papers, released not once, but twice by the Elysee Palace, with the comment that there would be no comment.
The Sarkozys had appeared before a judge Monday in the Paris suburb of Nanterre to ask for a divorce by “mutual agreement,” according to their lawyer Michele Cahen, who told reporters that “everything went well. . . . I was both of their lawyers and I couldn’t have been if there had been a disagreement.”
There was, however, plenty of speculation about whether the Elysee had chosen the day of a long-planned challenge to Sarkozy’s presidency to confirm the breakup, diverting the media to the juicy details of an imploding marriage.
Since Sarkozy came into office five months ago, 49-year-old Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz has shown little interest in the job of First Wife, appearing only sporadically at his side. But all day Thursday scenes from happier times in the 11-year marriage of the president and the glamorous former model streamed across the television news, relegating the headlines on the strike to the bottom of the screen. Footage of 20,000 union members marching on a sunny day from Paris’ famed Place de la Republique hardly turned up.
Some of the president’s opponents relished the gossip, with one Communist weekly running a cartoon of a scowling Mrs. Sarkozy with her fist up and the caption, “Cecilia on unlimited strike!”
Others, however, attempted to right the priorities of the country. “Today, the main news isn’t the divorce,” Francois Hollande, head of the Socialist Party, told local media. “It’s a strike that had a considerable following and which gave hope that after this movement there might be some real negotiation.”
Hollande may have reason to sympathize with Sarkozy: His own partnership with Segolene Royal, the former Socialist presidential candidate, came to a media-saturated end not long after she lost the election in May.
Almost all the men in Sarkozy’s government who were asked about their boss’ divorce recoiled: The president of the Senate, Christian Poncelet, a member of Sarkozy’s center-right party, said: “I don’t care about [his] private life. It’s not my business. I already have a hard time dealing with mine.”
Sarkozy’s union opponents shared the sentiment: “The president is a man and he has a wife, and this is their private business and it’s nothing to do with the country’s business,” said Gerard Aschieri, a labor leader
The French are more used to public workers on strike than they are to divorcing presidents: It would not be autumn in France without public servants and “functionaries” tying up the transport system to keep the government from cutting benefits rarely seen in the private sector.
“I have lived through so many of these Metro stoppages,” grumbled 51-year-old Patrice Aulun, a secretary at an insurance firm who had walked seven miles across Paris to get to work. “I have my special strike shoes on today,” she said, showing her stylish ballet flats. Had it rained, she said, “I’d be at La Republique myself throwing rocks.”
For the duration of the 24-hour strike, the national rail service ground to a halt, subways in Paris barely operated, buses were nowhere in sight, taxis were scarce, the opera was canceled and many museums never opened. The cross-Channel Eurostar train ran on a slightly reduced schedule. The people most determined to get to work either walked, rollerbladed or competed for 30,000 rental bicycles recently provided on city streets.
Thursday’s union confrontation was aimed at a proposal by Sarkozy to reduce “special regime” pensions that allow 1.7 million rail, utility and other workers to retire at age 50, and that cost French taxpayers $10 billion annually.
Union leaders fear these retirement benefits will fall victim to Sarkozy’s larger scheme to remap the pension system and enact broader changes.
Lorenzo, a 28-year-old train driver who would not give his last name, said it was a “French tradition” for individuals to defend their working rights but acknowledged that he was not sure that a strike would work this time. “This is France; we had the Revolution,” he said. “We know we’ll lose our advantages anyway, but we want to slow things down.”
All but one poll on the strike showed the majority of the French opposed the stoppage.
Genevieve Lafon, a bank worker who commutes from Normandy, had lost her patience with the unions after she spent her day off calling the train station to find out what to expect, only to get an answering machine. “They already have more privileges than most of us and they forget that we pay for their pensions,” she said. “I think it’s a scandal that they prevent us from going to work.”
Special correspondent Devorah Lauter and Times staff writer Achrene Sicakyuz contributed to this report.