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Jimmy Goldsmith famously said that when you marry your mistress you create a job vacancy. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is finding it works the other way round...

Jimmy Goldsmith famously said that when you marry your mistress you create a job vacancy. French president Nicolas Sarkozy is finding it works the other way round. Mention the name Cécilia Sarkozy in France and you often get a raised eyebrow and an “oh la la!  Well, the way you get them is the way you lose them”.

As mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine it was Sarkozy’s job to oversee the civil marriage of Cécilia to her first husband Jacques Martin, a French TV host. It was three years before Sarko saw Cécilia again. He was also married but that didn’t stop him being “struck by lighting”.  The couple duly had an affair before eventually leaving their respective spouses. They were married in 1996 and Cécilia gave birth to their son Louis six months later. They seemed happily married until 2005 when Cécilia broke the cardinal French rule of discretion during illicit affairs and had a very public affair with the PR executive Richard Attias a dashing forty-nine-year-old Moroccan. The pair moved to New York and the Sarkozys split up for several months. Pictures of Cécilia and her lover were even published on the front cover of the magazine Paris Match. Sarkozy arranged for the editor to be fired, but the damage was done. 

For the first time in living memory the French public was treated to the kind of salacious gossip we have been enjoying in Britain for years. Eventually Nicolas wooed Cecilia back (although he did manage to fit in a quick affair with a young political journalist) and she returned to Europe.

Of course infidelity in France is nothing new, especially not in political circles. What is new is sharing your infidelity with the rest of the nation. François Mitterand for example was tight-lipped about his affairs. “There is a rumour Mr President that you have a mistress and a love child,” a journalist once asked the President. “Et alors?” was Mitterand’s response, “So what?” His mistress, Anne Pingeot could be credited with starting the trend for hanging out the presidential washing in public although she at least waited until her lover was dead. Then she showed up at his funeral with the former president’s love-child in tow.

The French don’t mind all this infidelity. It is well known that Chirac has been constantly unfaithful to his wife Bernadette. Félix Faure died at the Elysee Palace while having oral sex with his mistress in 1899. There are worse ways to go. But all three former presidents mentioned were discreet and the public was disinterested.

To them a president’s sex life has no bearing on whether or not he can or should run the country. They think that public trust and private lust should be kept separate. They were astounded by the fuss surrounding the shenanigans of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. “For us if the President has sex with an intern it’s not a bad thing,” one friend told me. “Because men are terrible if they don’t have sex.”

Women are just as entitled to their ‘petites aventures’, as they call them, which is why the French public has not turned against Cécilia, despite rumours that a divorce is now imminent. “I would imagine most French women would applaud her for getting out of what I presume is a loveless marriage,” says another French friend. “Or has she been bonking someone else? In which case they’d applaud even louder!”

The French rather like Cécilia. A former model, she is everything a chic French woman should be; tall, slim, elegant. The papers raved about her first appearance at the swearing-in ceremony, comparing her to Jackie Onassis. She was dressed in Prada. In fact she dressed the new president in Prada too. Perhaps a slightly unpatriotic move for a French first lady, but she got away with it. She is a mother of three, as well as the son she has with Sarkozy she had two daughters, now aged 22 and 19, with her first husband.

Most people don’t really seem to care what goes on between the Sarkozys. “We’ve had enough of this!” said one commentator on the Nouvel Observateur website which carried a story about the imminent collapse of the presidential marriage. “With all the problems going on in France this is really insignificant.” Another reader points out that they didn’t vote for Cécilia, they voted for her husband -  something Cecilia apparently failed to do herself.

Since Sarko took office in May Cécilia has been conspicuous by her absence. “I don’t see myself as a first lady,” she has been quoted as saying. “That bores me. I am not politically correct.” She refused to have tea with President Bush when the couple recently visited America. She said she had a cold, although she managed to go shopping. She didn’t show up in Bulgaria with her husband during his state visit, despite her high-profile role in the release of the Bulgarian nurses. She didn’t even show up at the rugby world cup semi-final on Saturday. Maybe she had a premonition of the final score, or another rendezvous? A rendezvous is more likely.

Let’s face it, if French men are sleeping around, then so are French women. They are very fond of their petites aventures. They see them as one of the good things in life that one shouldn’t deny oneself, rather like a mature piece of Brie or a square of exquisite dark chocolate.

French female infidelity has a long and illustrious past. Eleanor of Aquitaine, for example, cuckolded her husband Louis II way back during the second crusades. Nobody in France disproves of literary heroine Emma Bovary for cavorting with the young Léon in the back of a horse-drawn carriage or being seduced by an evil aristo. “Our culture of l’amour libertine is a heritage we cannot avoid,” says one woman I know who works for a major French design house. “We have grown up with books like Dangerous Liaisons and characters like the Marquis de Sade and Colette. They are part of our education.”

As the Vicomte de Valmont, the central character in Dangerous Liaisons says, seduction is not something he does willingly; it is beyond his control. The same goes for women, who unlike their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, see the freedom to seduce not only part of their heritage but as their right. If you cut a French woman in half you will see the words liberté, égalité, fraternité written throughout like a stick of rock. And of these the most important is liberté. The whole notion of freedom is deeply inscribed in the French psyche. Marrying and then misbehaving is something they feel they are free to do.

But what French women insist on is discretion. If they criticise Cécilia it is not for being unfaithful but for getting caught out. “Everyone does their own thing in their own corner,” the French underwear designer Chantal Thomass told me.

The Cécilia saga is a first. Never before has a first lady publicly humiliated a president. Are we seeing a new generation of French women who not put up with infidelity or who will stray before their husbands get the chance?  The stoical behaviour of women such as Bernadette Chirac, whose husband is a serial philanderer and has been unfaithful to her for most of their marriage, is seen as old-fashioned and weak. “Women are not willing to put up with being treated badly any more,” says a business-woman friend of mine in her mid-thirties who runs a software company. “And now that they have their own careers and own incomes I think we will see a lot more women acting like Cécilia.”

How will France’s leader react to this? They may not be a happy family, but Sarko is safe from divorce. Under article 67 of the French constitution he cannot be brought in front of a judge either in a criminal or civil proceeding so Cécilia doesn’t have the right to file for divorce. As for the rest of the macho French population, they will just have to get used to their women behaving like they do. 

Rumour has it that Cécilia has left the Elysée Palace and moved to a suite at the five-star Beau Rivage Hotel in Geneva. A friend of mine who lives in Geneva dismisses the gossip. “We don’t really care,” he says. “I think she’s rather lovely - she can stay here if she likes.”

If, as one Swiss newspaper claimed, Cécilia had simply tired of Sarko’s multiple infidelities, then the rules of love and fidelity in France have been dramatically redrawn. Sarkozy looks like becoming the first victim of the new regime.