The Sarkozy Soap Opera

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Melanie Frey / EPA

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia in June.

Paul Simon once sang that there must be 50 ways to leave a lover, but that number shrinks considerably when you're the first lady. Just ask Cécilia Sarkozy.

For weeks France has been waiting, on tenterhooks, to see if its first lady will reappear at the side of President Nicolas Sarkozy after a nearly three-month absence, or whether her departure from the sumptuous Elysée Palace is permanent. So intense have the rumors of a marital split grown that talk on the street and in the media has assumed a soap-operatic quality. Swiss journalists report that she's a regular guest at the luxury hotel in Geneva where her sometime beau Richard Attias lives. Others simply note that the President appears nervous and anxious, or as the New York Times put it after a September interview, "visibly restless, at times brusque." Restless and brusque? Ah yes, all too familiar signs of romantic heartache. "He is really dependent on Cécilia," says Nicholas Domenach, deputy editorial director of the French magazine Marianne, who has written extensively about Sarkozy. "He is in love with her."

The Sarkozys' woes reveal much about France's changing attitudes on love and marriage. During the 1980s and early 1990s, President Francois Mitterrand retained a parallel private life, regularly visiting a mistress of decades while French voters remained none the wiser. More amazingly, Mitterrand even helped raise the couple's love-child in secret. His daughter Mazarine — who has since described her extraordinary shadow childhood in a book — hid her father's identity even from her school friends, revealing herself publicly for the first time at age 22, as a mourner at her father's state funeral.

The peccadilloes of politicians have traditionally been deemed unworthy of serious attention by the French, who have long believed in the aphrodisiac lure of power. In stark contrast to Americans, many French citizens accept that their Presidents are probably engaged in extramarital dalliances, but don't see that as any of their business as long as the presidency itself has remained stable.

In a break with tradition, the Sarkozys' affairs have been played out under the klieg lights — hardly surprising, perhaps, given the unusual start to their romance. The two met when Sarkozy, then mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly and also married at the time, officiated at Cécilia's wedding to her first husband Jacques Martin. After her messy five-year divorce battle with Martin, Sarkozy — now divorced himself — finally married Cécilia himself. But in 2005, the weekly magazine Paris Match published a photograph of Cécilia, a willowy former model, strolling through Manhattan with Attias, for whom she had reportedly left Sarkozy. Sarkozy was a close friend of the magazine's publisher, and its editor was fired for violating Cecilia's privacy. By then, however, Sarkozy was romancing a political newspaper journalist, according to several newspaper accounts that reported sightings of the pair.

Without explanation Cécilia returned to Sarkozy's side during his presidential election campaign, putting a visible spring in his step as he stormed through France pumping for votes, and leading him to declare his love in his election-campaign book entitled Testimony. "We do not know how to distance ourselves from each other," he gushed. "It is impossible!"

But many French people now worry that Sarkozy's "impossible" has become inevitable, and they express concern at how the President — facing tough battles with the unions as he attempts to push through financial reforms — will react. In recent weeks he has shown his vulnerability, reportedly confiding in Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili that he could soon be single. (Georgian officials deny these reports.)

"He is a passionate, complicated man," Domenach says. "And she is a woman who wants to be dependent on nobody, who wants to do things her way." That has clashed with expectations of her as first lady, according to Domenach. He describes that position as a vague helper to the President — a bit like "a coat rack," he says.

Evidence is growing that Cecilia Sarkozy may have bolted from that role. In August she skipped a lunch in Maine with President George W. and Laura Bush. She failed to travel with Sarkozy last month to Bulgaria, where she had been due to receive the country's highest award, in gratitude for having negotiated the release of five Bulgarian nurses from a Libyan jail. Several parliamentarians have requested hearings to discuss why the President sent Cécilia, who has no government position, to meet with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddhafi on the intensely delicate matter of the nurses' imprisonment on trumped-up charges of deliberately infecting children with AIDS. One question that could emerge in parliamentary hearings: Did Sarkozy hand Cécilia a key political role during a time when he was also attempting to keep her heart? Attempting to rekindle the interest of a beloved partner by sending them to meet with Gaddhafi would certainly mark a gambit quite unique in the annals of courtly love.