Mme. Sarkozy Shines As First Lady

France's scene-stealing new First Lady made a spectacular foray into geopolitics last month with her controversial role in the liberation of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor from a Libyan prison. Her actual influence in ending the eight-year ordeal remains ambiguous: "She was lucky," Saif al-Islam Qadhafi, the Libyan leader's son, told NEWSWEEK. Lucky or not, after two trips to Libya and a long conversation with the man who was once the most roguish of state leaders in his Bedouin tent, the mythmaking had begun.

Three months in "office," Cécilia, 49, had set herself apart from her predecessors in France and from the current crop of European First Spouses, who steer clear of public affairs. A former fashion model—tall, feline, reticent at times—she had seemed like the last First Lady who would throw herself brazenly into the world of international diplomacy. While her husband angled ferociously for the presidency, two years ago Cécilia said the prospect of being First Lady "bored" her. Yet there she was, waving triumphantly from the tarmac in Sofia, Bulgaria, freed hostages in tow. Suddenly, Mme. Sarkozy is emerging as a rare figure in Europe—an American-style First Lady, and one who may well come to combine the glamour of a Jackie O with the activist bent of an Eleanor Roosevelt or Pat Nixon.

It's not that the current crop of European First Spouses don't have lives, or talents, it's just that they rarely risk testing them in the public spotlight. (What if Cécilia had come home empty-handed?) The British press praises the dignified discretion of Sarah Brown, who skipped her husband's first trip as prime minister to the United States. Joachim Sauer, Angela Merkel's husband, a professor of chemistry at Berlin's Humboldt University, was dubbed the "Phantom of the Opera" because for a while, the only appearance he made with his wife was at the annual opera festival in Bayreuth. Italy's Flavia Prodi is an economics professor. Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's wife, Sonsoles Espinosa, sang soprano in a Paris performance of "Carmen" this spring.

But in Europe, no matter how skilled First Spouses may be, they still run into trouble—possibly more than their American counterparts—if they are seen to be using the unofficial role too publicly. The British pilloried Cherie Blair for appearing to use her status as a prime minister's wife to advance her law practice. True, Hillary Clinton also received brutal criticism from both sides of the political spectrum, particularly for her attempts at creating a national health plan, but she was becoming a real power player—stepping beyond the accepted role carved out from Roosevelt through Barbara Bush of a good-will ambassador for the nation. That may be the role Cécilia Sarkozy is now creating.

French observers have offered up several "First Ladies Américaines," including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Hillary Clinton, as possible templates to define their leading lady. "She has something in common with American First Ladies in that she has already had a mission, and an important one," says Régine Torrent, author of the book "First Ladies, d'Eleanor Roosevelt à Hillary Clinton." Yet Torrent rejects the Roosevelt comparison because she was politically active before she became First Lady. Similarly, Clinton was already a successful lawyer by the time she moved into the White House. A better comparison, says Torrent, is Pat Nixon, who wasn't an activist but went on to become a "personal representative of the president" and a good-will ambassador.

Sarkozy is forging her own path, and entered her relationship with Nicolas—and her role as a public figure—in a blaze of scandal. It was 1984, and Nicolas, then 29 and married, was mayor of the posh Paris suburb of Neuilly, officiating at a wedding of the very pregnant Cécilia, 26, to a television star twice her age. Sarkozy has said it was love at first sight. But Cécilia had two children before leaving her husband for Sarkozy. They married in 1996, and for years her job was tending to her husband's career. She worked as Sarkozy's chief of staff at his UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party headquarters, maintained an office at his Interior Ministry and was a "technical adviser" when he was Finance minister in 2004. Christiane Restier, a Bordeaux political scientist who has studied French leaders' spouses, says that while Cécilia has a modern image, she has played a traditional role, working to serve her husband "like the bakerwoman is the baker's wife."

They allowed the French media into their lives to an unprecedented extent. In 2002 the family was photographed in Sarkozy's Interior Ministry office with their son Louis, then 5, as he played under his father's desk, an evident homage to the famous Kennedy photo with JFK Jr. But the relationship soured. In 2005 she left her husband for several months, reportedly for New York and a French advertising executive. Ostensibly reconciled last year, she still skipped Sarkozy's biggest presidential campaign events. She didn't vote, and was absent even as he was declared the winner.

So at Sarkozy's Inauguration, all eyes were on the capricious First Lady in her ivory-satin Prada dress. There was the impossibly glamorous, modern family—his blond sons, her blond daughters, and the couple's wide-eyed son Louis, now 10—an infusion of youth that Jacques Chirac, 74, and his wife, Bernadette, 73, could never muster. And that kiss on the lips: unusually demonstrative for a presidential couple. The French press played it up as a Gallic allusion to Cape Cod Camelot—with one president replacing another 20 years his senior, like the French Kennedys relieving the French Eisenhowers.

But the new First Lady's role was ill defined. French First Ladies have no official status and there is little protocol—only customs to keep or break. In the country that beheaded Queen Marie Antoinette, First Ladies can get in trouble if they are too active, or too aloof. Sarkozy, however, seems to thrive on being unpredictable, says Bertrand Meyer-Stabley, a French biographer now writing a book about her. "I think even her husband is careful with her," he says. For now, the French First Lady is not talking to the press. Her press attaché promises her role will be laid out in September, leaving the French media only to guess what her next move will be. But Meyer-Stabley suggests she might be suited to helping build the Sarkozy brand. "The role of First Lady is no longer a supporting role," he says. "She will completely renovate it."

With Christopher Dickey in Nice