French media says Sarkozys saw divorce judge

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PARIS, Oct 17 (Reuters) President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia have launched divorce proceedings, French media reported today, piling pressure on the Elysee Palace to break its silence on rampant speculation of a separation.

Sarkozy's spokesman declined to comment on the reports, as he has during weeks of mounting rumours about a breakdown of the 11-year marriage.

However, today's stories on the websites of the respected weekly Le Nouvel Observateur and the LCI television station broke new ground, saying France's first couple had actually filed for divorce.

Le Nouvel Observateur said the pair saw a judge late on Monday to finalise the divorce details.

LCI said Cecilia applied for a divorce on Monday and a judge went to the Elysee, the president's residence, later the same day to see Sarkozy and validate the procedure.

If the legal proceedings have indeed started, it could still take several weeks before any divorce is finalised.

Sarkozy, 52, and Cecilia, a 49-year old former model, got married in 1996. They have a young son and two children each from their previous marriages.

Cecilia played a major role in her husband's career, serving as an adviser during his rise to power, and Sarkozy has said her presence was essential to his well-being.

The couple split in 2005, but got back together amidst a blaze of publicity at the start of 2006, with Sarkozy writing in a book that he thought they would remain together for ever.

However, talk of fresh marital strife surfaced during this year's election campaign when Cecilia failed to show up at her husband's countless rallies. Since his May victory, she has attended only three official events, the last time on July 14.

The French media, usually shy about reporting on the private lives of its politicians, has grown increasingly bold in its coverage of the affair, openly questioning ministers and government spokesman about the situation.

Education Minister Xavier Darcos told France Info radio on Wednesday he did not know what was going on, but added: ''I always find it very sad to see that love can fall apart.'' As president, Sarkozy enjoys legal immunity and experts have said a divorce could only go ahead if he did not oppose it.

However, newspapers have quoted some experts as saying any legal proceeding involving the president could not be validated until after he left office.

Sarkozy is due to travel to Lisbon tomorrow for a European Union summit, giving reporters an opportunity to question him about the reports.

Divorce proceedings in France are not made public and it is up to the couples to reveal any separation if they see fit.

REUTERS RSA BST0029

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