May 16, 2007 / 9:52 AM / 11 years ago

France's presidential palace has racy past

PARIS (Reuters) - The Elysee Palace, Nicolas Sarkozy’s home for the next five years after he became president on Wednesday, has a rich and racy history.

Built in 1718, the Elysee first entered the history books when the Marquise de Pompadour, King Louis XV’s favorite mistress, bought the building in 1753.

Opponents showed their distaste for the regime by hanging signs on the gates reading: “Home of the King’s whore”.

Situated on the chic Faubourg Saint-Honore, just off the Champs Elysees avenue, the elegant building served successively during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars as a furniture warehouse, a print factory and a dance hall.

Russian Cossacks camped at the Elysee when they occupied Paris in 1814.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was the first president to make it his residence in 1848, before declaring himself emperor Napoleon III and moving to the nearby Tuileries Palace.

But the emperor kept the Elysee as a discreet place to meet his mistresses, moving between the two palaces through a secret underground passage which has since been destroyed.

Even after the republic was restored in 1870, the Elysee’s occupants maintained the building’s racy reputation, particularly President Felix Faure, who died there suddenly in the arms of his mistress Marguerite Steinheil in 1899.

French history records the words of his valet when a priest was hastily brought into the bedroom for the last rites and asked: “Does the president still have his “connaissance?’”.

The priest used the term to mean ‘consciousness’, but the valet understood its other French meaning, ‘acquaintance’, and answered: “No, we ushered her out by the back door.”

MONKEY BUSINESS

During World War One, a gorilla escaped from a nearby menagerie, entered the palace and was said to have tried to haul the wife of President Raymond Poincare into a tree only to be foiled by Elysee guards.

President Paul Deschanel, who resigned in 1920 because of madness, was said to have been so impressed by the gorilla’s feat that, to the alarm of his guests, he took to jumping into trees during state receptions.

Elysee was closed up during World War Two — the Nazis never used the building — and left empty until after the war. It was then occupied from 1959 to 1969 by President Charles de Gaulle, who frowned on its reputation and lack of privacy.

He had another luxurious building nearby purchased so he could receive official state guests there rather than at the Elysee itself. “I do not like the idea of meeting kings walking around my corridors in their pajamas” he said.

Socialist President Francois Mitterrand, who ruled from 1981-1995, is said hardly to have used its private apartments.

He preferred returning at night to his own home on the bohemian Left Bank or to a discreet flat in another district occupied by the mother of his illegitimate daughter Mazarine, whose existence was only revealed to the public in 1994.

By contrast, outgoing President Jacques Chirac lived in the Elysee apartments with his wife Bernadette, but it was not clear if Sarkozy’s wife Cecilia was set to move in with her husband.

She has been barely seen in recent months and, a long time ago, expressed doubts about life at the Elysee.

“I don’t see myself as a first lady. It bores me. I’m not politically correct,” she told an interviewer.

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