Having marketed his marriage as an integral part of his presidential appeal, President Nicolas Sarkozy has had to endure the agony of its breakup in the full glare of the publicity he courted for his private life. But what happens now that Cécilia, once the object of his unwavering adoration, is gone? How does a newly divorced President go about seeking romantic companionship? And what will a politician proud of his considerable seductive powers do when he simply seeks a no-strings extramarital liaison in the manner that French voters have long come to expect from their married Presidents? Sarkozy will have to find answers to these questions as a nation alerted watches his every bachelor's move: Stay tuned for the Elysée Palace Dating Game!
So rare is the incidence of an unmarried head of state that it may be up to Sarkozy to invent the rules and rituals of presidential mating. Don't expect speed-dating or Internet flirting, as in:
"What are you wearing?"
"My tricolor sash and blue suit with the key to the nuclear launching room sewed into the lining."
But what exactly are "The Rules" of the more classic dating game for a combative new President under relentless public scrutiny as he moves to impose painful economic reforms on a reticent population?
"Even if Sarkozy can avoid the media, today it only takes a fellow diner spotting him with a woman in a Paris restaurant before a cell phone photo of the scene is uploaded to the Internet and becomes real-time front-page news," comments Christophe Deloire, a journalist and co-author of last year's best-selling Sexus Politicus, which examines how past French Presidents manifested their power through sexual conquest. "Sarkozy can limit the attention he gets from the media by being discreet. But as we saw when Cécilia left him for several months in 2005, being discreet, staying in, and assuming the role of the abandoned husband isn't something he likes."
During that period of separation, the initially sympathetic media treatment of Sarkozy as the saddened, bilked hubby quickly gave way to reports that he'd hooked up with a French journalist reports, Deloire suggests, for which Sarkozy himself was the source. In this, he displayed a smart sense of the French public's traditional tolerance of extramarital dalliances by its leaders, and its attitude that "seductive power is attendant to the charisma requisite of succeeding in politics," Deloire explains. So long as the politicians made a decent effort to keep their philandering out of public view, French media tended to respect their privacy. Even the French public treated rumors of presidential trysts with a shrug: Discreet bed-hopping had been one of the perks of power even when France was ruled by kings.
Sarkozy appears to have broken the mold of the traditional don't-ask-don't-tell arrangement. "He pushed his wife and family to the center stage so many times that there's no credible way he can ask the media to stay out of his life now that he's alone," Deloire says. The ironic result for Sarkozy may be that his romantic pursuits will be the subject of even more coverage now that he is a bachelor than they had been when he cut the figure of the pained, adoring husband. It's the kind of coverage the usually attention-hungry Sarkozy could have happily done without.
The reason for the media respecting the privacy of the the sexual exploits of married pols is that such pursuits are by nature the stuff of marriage-wrecking scandal. But Sarkozy's search for a new mate will, by definition, be aboveboard he's not cheating on anyone. And that will make his adventures in the dating jungle fair game for the media. That could bring unexpected changes in French public attitudes. How many women may Sarkozy uneventfully date, for example, before prudish allegations of presidential promiscuity resound? And how many times will Sarkozy be permitted to see the same woman before the media begins running the rule over her as a candidate for First Lady? Even more perilous is the question of whether Sarkozy can seek romantic company in his natural power milieu of politicians, business leaders and diplomats without such liaisons potentially conflicting with his official responsibilities. Managing his private life may look much easier, in hindsight, when all it involved was keeping Cécilia from moving out.
Perhaps if he were a U.S. President, Sarkozy would also run the risk of opening himself up to allegations of sexual harassment. That's less likely, somehow, in France, Deloire explains. He cites a remark made by former President and prolific seducer Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in anticipation of Deloire's book: "The very power and allure of the office meant any President could find what they wanted without pressure or coercion," Deloire recalls. Then, he adds: "Sarkozy won't have to force anyone to submit to his presidential charms." At least not in the bedroom in the field of governance, of course, France may continue to play hard to get.