PARIS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia have divorced after 11 years of marriage, dealing a severe personal blow to the French leader just six months after he was elected to power.
Ending months of spiraling speculation about a deep marital rift, Sarkozy’s spokesman issued a terse statement saying the pair were separating by mutual consent and would not discuss the issue any further. He later confirmed they were divorced.
The couple’s lawyer said they had already seen a judge to formalise the split and had agreed financial terms.
“There was no problem, they resolved everything amicably,” lawyer Michele Cahen told Europe 1 radio.
It was the first time in modern French history that a serving president has divorced his wife, and Sarkozy’s reaction to the split will come under intense scrutiny.
He was still wearing a wedding ring on the fourth finger of his left hand when he waved to photographers on arrival in Lisbon on Thursday for the European Union summit.
Cecilia played a crucial role in his rise to power, serving as an adviser during his previous stints as interior and finance minister. Sarkozy himself vaunted their relationship, telling aides she was “the only non-negotiable part” of his career.
Her departure could affect more than his personal life.
“It could have direct consequences on policymaking because of the possible impact it could have on his psychological stability, on his focus. It might make him take decisions which he might not otherwise have taken,” said Paul Bacot, politics professor at Lyon’s Sciences Po institute.
However, allies have rallied around the French president and denied the divorce would have any impact on his government.
“This will be of no political consequence. France is governed and well governed and there is nothing here that will touch on the public life of France,” said Pierre Lellouche, a parliamentarian in Sarkozy’s ruling UMP party.
Cecilia’s influence over Sarkozy was considerable and some of his inner circle are her close friends, including Justice Minister Rachida Dati, who has proved a popular figure in the cabinet.
A CSA poll released on Thursday found that 92 percent of French citizens had not changed their opinion of Sarkozy because of the divorce and 79 percent said it was not an important event in French politics.
Gushing media compared France’s first couple to America’s glamorous John and Jackie Kennedy, but behind the glossy exterior, there were clear signs their marriage was flailing.
Cecilia played no public part in her husband’s election campaign this year, did not vote for him in the second round and only appeared fleetingly alongside him at three public engagements since his May victory — the last time in July.
Some commentators wondered whether her departure might actually help Sarkozy in the long run.
“It’s better to have no first lady at all than a first lady who doesn’t turn up when invited,” said Roland Cayrol, head of pollster CSA.
The split dominated Thursday’s press, knocking a nationwide transport strike off the front pages.
“Desperate housewife,” Liberation daily said in a headline.
Opposition politicians accused Sarkozy of timing the announcement to overshadow the strike against pension reform and news of the divorce rippled around a demonstration in Paris.
“Cecilia is with us!” some unionists chanted.
Sarkozy met Cecilia in 1984, when he was a town mayor, and officiated over her marriage to a famous TV presenter.
He later admitted he was smitten by the young bride and within five years they had moved in together, tying the knot in 1996. They have a 10-year old son together and two children each from their previous marriages.
During the early years, Cecilia rarely left his side, but as he inched nearer to the presidency, she seemed distracted.
“I don’t see myself as a first lady. It bores me. I’m not politically correct,” she said two years ago.
They briefly separated in 2005 and Cecilia moved to New York to be with another man. Sarkozy was visibly shaken by the episode, losing weight and appearing tetchy, leading some to question his ability to govern under duress.
Previous French leaders have had unconventional love lives, with Socialist President Francois Mitterrand fathering a love child and President Felix Faure died in the arms of a lover in 1899. However, none have ever divorced.
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Additional reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich and Jon Boyle in Paris and Paul Taylor in Lisbon