Inside the Sarkozy Divorce

For Nicolas Sarkozy the man, this has been a week of personal upheaval. His wife, Cécilia, a statuesque former model, filed for divorce "by mutual consent" after 11 years of marriage, according to a terse 15-word communiqué from the Elysée Palace this afternoon. But for Sarkozy, the president of France, one of the great modern masters of political spin, well, things could be worse.

Today, as it happens, Sarkozy faced the first massive challenge by organized labor to his economic reforms, a nationwide public transport strike that has brought trains, subways and buses to a standstill and left thousands of commuters trudging to work. But the lead stories on television and in the country's most popular magazines and newspapers, primed by days of gossip and rumor, are all about Cécilia taking a hike.

If the French once thought they were too sophisticated to let soap operas take precedence over "serious" politics (and they certainly acted that way during the tribulations and trial of the adulterous U.S. President Bill Clinton a decade ago), well, such pretenses are gone now. The best headline of the morning appeared on the cover of the left-wing daily Libération over a photograph snapped three months ago of a Cécilia, who looked both sad and resolute: DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE, it read, in English no less.

In fact, the Sarkozys obsessive and painful relationship started playing out dramatically in public more than two years ago, when she attended a conference at the Dead Sea in Jordan on the arm of another man. Since then, the alternating estrangements and embraces of Nicolas and Cécilia seemed to be modeled on the lyrics of the old Simon and Garfunkel song about a woman of the same name "breaking my heart and shaking my confidence daily," all set against Sarkozy's winning bid for the presidency last May.

"My only worry, when it comes right down to it, is Cécilia," Sarkozy reportedly told confidantes in the press corps after his election. And she was just as frank. "I don't see myself as First Lady," she told a TV interviewer in 2005. "It bores me." She missed most of the campaign and looked like a political prisoner dressed up for the cameras whenever she was trotted out at public appearances. Her one attempt to stake out turf as an activist, popping up last summer in the middle of last-minute negotiations to free Bulgarian nurses held prisoner by Libya, was treated by much of the press (and the Libyans) as a bizarre and superfluous bit of personal theater.

Yet even some of Sarkozy's political enemies talk about the magnetism between the couple. "Why does he accept her behavior--because he really does love her!" says a woman well connected at the upper reaches of the Socialist Party. He is said to have fallen for her at first sight ("hit by lightning," as the French say) when as mayor of the Paris suburb of Neuilly he performed the 1984 marriage ceremony between Cécilia (very pregnant) and French television presenter Jacques Martin. In 1996 , Sarkozy finally married Cécilia himself.

Always and at almost any opportunity Sarkozy has spoken and written of Cécilia in passionate, sometimes sappy, language. A chapter devoted to their marriage and its difficulties in Sarkozy's 2006 autobiographical essay "Témoignage" (Testimony) uses only her first initial as a title: "'C.' I write 'C' because still today, almost 20 years after we first met, saying her first name out loud fills me with emotion. C, that's Cécilia. Cécilia is my wife. She's part of me … We cannot--we know not how to--pull apart from each other. It's not for want of trying … But it's impossible!" The couple has a 10-year-old son, Louis, and two children each from previous marriages.

Sarkozy suggested that in today's France, a politician's intimate problems have to be revealed as never before. "This evolution toward transparency about private life, unimaginable only ten years ago, has become inescapable today," wrote Sarkozy. Then he adopted the posture of hard-nosed realism he applies to just about any challenge. "So it's just as well to confront the problem head on and not try to dodge the issue."

Will the current break-up plunge the French president into a melancholy plagued by migraines, as reportedly happened after Cécilia's Dead Sea escapade in 2005. Or has the burden of his "only worry" been lifted at last?

"We've been waiting for this since Monday. We had a bet going in our family that the divorce would be announced today, the day of the strikes," says Régine Torrent, author of "First Ladies: From Eleanor Roosevelt to Hillary Clinton." "I don't think the choice of the date was all that innocent."

"People who've taken a day off to avoid the strikes, or even people who've made it to the office, if it's a bit quiet, they are all following the soap opera of the day," says Torrent. As for Sarkozy himself, "Professionally, it might be better for him," she suggests. "He won't have to be justifying a situation that didn't have a justification." Indeed, the opposition Socialist Party noted in a communiqué this afternoon, "While the rumors of the separation of Cécilia and Nicolas Sarkozy have been rustling for six days, the Elysée chooses this Thursday, a day of strong protests, to make this news official." It added mischievously, "It's up to the French people to judge whether this is but a simple coincidence."

What's sure is that the unions who put their all into today's work stoppage are unhappy about the distraction. Already, polls had shown that for the first time in modern French history such a strike was opposed by the majority of the population. The UNSA union has announced that some Paris subway workers will extend its action another day, if only to make sure the press pays attention. But, of course, now that the Sarkozys' split is official, the public will be looking forward to more episodes of "Desperate Housewife."