French president Sarkozy separates from his wife

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PARIS, Oct 18 (Reuters) French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia are separating by mutual consent, the president's office said today, ending rampant speculation about the state of their 11-year old marriage.

The terse statement said the couple would not make any comment about their separation. The French media reported earlier this week that the pair secretly saw a judge on Monday to file for divorce.

It is the first time in modern French history that a serving president has separated from his wife, and Sarkozy's reaction to the split will come under intense scrutiny.

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.

Gushing media compared France's first couple to America's glamorous John and Jackie Kennedy, but behind the glossy exterior, it was obvious their marriage was flailing.

Cecilia played no public part in her husband's election campaign this year, did not vote for him at the second round ballot and only appeared fleetingly alongside him at 3 public engagements since his May victory -- the last time in July.

Their relationship first hit the rocks in 2005, when they both had affairs and briefly lived apart.

He was visibly shaken by the episode, losing weight and appearing tetchy, leading some at the time to question his ability to govern under emotional duress.

However, the couple got back together again in a blaze of publicity at the start of 2006 and a delighted Sarkozy wrote soon afterwards he expected they would stay united for ever.

REUTERS SKB PM1735

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