French president Sarkozy and wife divorce

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PARIS, Oct 18 (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 spiralling speculation about a 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 and Sarkozy's reaction to the split will come under intense scrutiny.

Cecilia, 50, played a crucial role in his rise to power, serving as an adviser during his previous stints as interior and finance minister. Sarkozy, 52, himself vaunted their relationship, telling aides she was ''the only non-negotiable part'' of his career.

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.

Rumours of the split have filled France's often prudish media in recent weeks and the story dominated Thursday's press, knocking a nationwide transport strike off the front pages.

''Desperate housewife,'' Liberation daily said in a headline.

STRIKE 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 that 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.

The couple got back together in 2006 but Cecilia was clearly unhappy, looking dazed and remote on the night of Sarkozy's vote triumph and flinching when he kissed her at his inauguration.

In an apparent effort to engage her in their new role as France's ''first couple'', Sarkozy sent Cecilia to Libya in July to help broker the release of Bulgarian medics convicted of infecting Libyan children with HIV.

France's opposition Socialists condemned the trip as media grandstanding and it proved her last public duty as his wife.

With rumours swirling, she posed for this week's Paris Match magazine and the image of her unsmiling face is plastered across news kiosks throughout France. She was believed to be in London on Thursday, while Sarkozy headed off to an EU summit in Lisbon.

Allies rallied around the French president on Thursday 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.

Her influence over Sarkozy is 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.

Previous French leaders have had unconventional love lives, with Socialist President Francois Mitterrand fathering an illegitimate daughter and President Felix Faure dying in the arms of a lover in 1899. However, none have ever divorced.

Sarkozy's Socialist rival in the presidential race, Segolene Royal, announced she was breaking up from the father of her four children, soon after her election defeat.

REUTERS RSA KN2205

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