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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 May 2007, 09:13 GMT 10:13 UK
Sarkozy soap opera grips Paris
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News

Will she or won't she? Paris is abuzz with the question, as voters wonder whether Cecilia Sarkozy will be a full-time First Lady or not, as her husband Nicolas assumes power at the Elysee Palace on Wednesday.

Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy vote together on 22 April
The Sarkozys appeared together early on in the election

Other nations have soap operas to keep them entertained. France has its own real-life political drama, which has so far kept millions tuned in - from the gripping episodes during the long-term feud between Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, and his former mentor, the outgoing President Jacques Chirac, to the recent cliff-hanger of the sporadic absences of Cecilia from her ambitious husband's side.

The 49-year-old former model and mother of his youngest son, Louis, 10, was with Mr Sarkozy as he claimed victory in his speech to cheering supporters on Place de la Concorde on the evening of 6 May.

But she was not with him earlier on Sunday afternoon when he went to vote, even though both of her stunning blonde daughters were at his side.

Cecilia was also noticeably absent for most of the final weeks of his winning campaign, even as President Chirac's wife Bernadette turned up to give her support at Mr Sarkozy's final rally in Montpellier.

Marital 'furniture'

Cecilia's recent absences have puzzled and intrigued the French, not least because for a long time she was one of her husband's closest political advisers. When he was minister of the interior from 2003, her office was next to his and she was known as a decisive and calming influence on Mr Sarkozy behind the scenes.

I don't see myself as First Lady - the whole idea bores me
Cecilia Sarkozy
interviewed in March 2005

However, the couple had a well-publicised split when Cecilia left Mr Sarkozy in May 2005 for several months for the international communications consultant, Richard Attias, confiding to friends that she had had enough of being treated like "part of the furniture".

The rumours flew on the internet, and among Paris-based journalists. But when Paris Match published a series of photos of Cecilia with her lover in New York, it was a step too far.

The editor of the magazine, Alain Genestar, lost his job - the result, most believe, of severe pressure from above. France's new president has been known to ring editors personally in fury when upset by coverage, and is said to have a long memory for journalistic slights.

Happily for relations between the French media and their new president, Cecilia returned to Mr Sarkozy's side a few months after the split, in January 2006. Only a few newspapers had reported his affair - during her absence - with a French political journalist.

Over the past month, there has been little coverage in the French media of Cecilia's on-off presence. Mr Sarkozy is a close friend of many of France's media barons.

In fact, this week Paris Match boasts a picture of the couple kissing on its front cover. "Cecilia shares in his victory," reads a sub-heading, followed by several pages of photographs of the presidential pair together on the night of his victory, along with Cecilia's two daughters from her previous marriage and Nicolas Sarkozy's two sons from his first marriage.

Cecilia was also back at his side, along with their youngest son, as the new president sunned himself on a billionaire's yacht off Malta for a few days after the election.

'Struck by lightning'

France has long been fascinated by one of its most glamorous power couples and their fiery personalities and continuing marital dramas - including the story of how they first met.

Jacques Chirac as mayor of Paris
Outgoing President Jacques Chirac has said he "loved many women"

Cecilia Maria Sara Isabel Ciganer-Albeniz was born in Paris to a pianist father of Russian origins and a Spanish mother. A law student and parliamentary aide as well as a model, she was first married at the age of 27 to the 51-year old children's TV presenter Jacques Martin at the town hall of the chic Paris suburb of Neuilly in 1984.

The man who performed their marriage ceremony was a certain Nicolas Sarkozy, then the 29-year old mayor of the suburb.

Three years later, Mr Sarkozy and Cecilia met again and he was apparently "struck by lightning" as he fell in love with her and she with him. The two left their respective spouses for each other, finally marrying in 1996 and playing out much of their subsequent relationship in the media spotlight.

Since then, Cecilia and the children have often appeared in magazine photo-shoots with Nicolas Sarkozy portraying their happy family life, with Paris Match showing the couple holding hands and enjoying a walk in the park on a recent weekend trip to London.

So what will happen next? Will Cecilia be a First Lady in the Bernadette Chirac mould, keeping her counsel and rarely speaking to the media except to promote her charitable interests?

Cecilia Sarkozy herself has gone on the record as saying she has always been keen to preserve her independence.

"I don't see myself as First Lady - the whole idea bores me," she said in an interview in March 2005. "I am not politically correct."

'Many but discreetly'

But does it matter whether there is a full-time First Lady in the Elysee Palace?

Mazarine Mitterrand, Francois Mitterrand's daughter, is comforted by her mother Anne Pingeot at his funeral
Mitterrand's daughter and mistress were long kept a secret

The French are, after all, famously tolerant of what their presidents get up to in their private lives. The late Francois Mitterrand managed to keep a mistress and an illegitimate child secret for most of his presidency. Even though the chattering classes in Paris knew, nobody thought it necessary to inform the French public.

The outgoing President Jacques Chirac has also admitted to having loved many women "as discreetly as possible" though it is not clear if his wife Bernadette agrees with his assessment.

"The French are very tolerant. They will brush off affairs, they will disregard financial scandals by French presidents," says one man who should know, Jean-Francois Probst, a long-time adviser and former chef-de-cabinet of Mr Chirac.

"But in some ways the French are also very conservative, and I think if there is no traditional First Lady to represent them, many would be upset."

In his book Testimony, Mr Sarkozy himself wrote last year: "Today, Cecilia and I are reunited for good, for real, doubtless for ever... We are not able and do not know how to separate from each other."

He recently explained Cecilia's absence on the campaign trail as a deliberate strategy to take his family out of the relentless glare of the media, when the far-right leader Jean-Marie le Pen tried - but failed - to make political capital out of Cecilia's temporary absence.

All the signs point towards Cecilia Sarkozy remaining at Nicolas Sarkozy's side and becoming France's First Lady as he takes office this week.

However, in this age of les pipol (people), as celebrities are dubbed here, the French will doubtless be tuning in enthusiastically for the next episode of the gripping real-life drama that is Elysee Palace.

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