Sarkozy discovers that "rupture" starts at home

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PARIS, Oct 20 (Reuters) When Nicolas Sarkozy was elected president in May he promised to bring ''rupture'' to every aspect of French public life.

Little did he think that his wife Cecilia would force the first major shake-up ... and in his own back yard.

By demanding a divorce, Cecilia has ended the long-held practice of hushing up marital discord in the gilded Elysee Palace, leaving her husband to become the first single president in the history of France's fifth Republic.

''Cecilia Sarkozy's behaviour shows a rupture because she's reclaimed her right to happiness, her right to freedom,'' said Christine Clerc, author of a book on presidential couples, ''Tigers and Tigresses''.

''Until now, the five first ladies of the 5th Republic were submissive, so to speak ... everything they did was in the service of their husbands,'' she told Reuters Television.

A book published last year said Sarkozy's predecessors, Jacques Chirac, Francois Mitterrand and Valery Giscard D'Estaing all juggled the fate of France, their families and a bevy of lovers with ease, helped partly by an acquiescent media.

According to Sexus Politicus, by Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois, the presidents' long-suffering wives put up with their husbands' peccadilloes out of a sense of stoic duty.

While no one is suggesting that infidelity played any part in the Sarkozy separation, there was also no question that Cecilia was going to endure an unhappy marriage.

''It's a generational thing. For previous presidents and their wives divorce just wasn't an option,'' said Deloire.

DECLINING LOVE Although France is often extolled as the land of love, torment and strife are becoming the norm. More than 40 per cent of all marriages now ending in divorce, against just 12 per cent three decades ago.

The political world appears particularly hit by separation: six members of Sarkozy's cabinet are divorced and his main rival in the presidential election -- Segolene Royal -- ended her relationship with her longstanding partner after her defeat.

Both Sarkozy and Cecilia were on their second marriages.

Their split has grabbed the headlines partly because they deliberately vaunted their relationship in the media, making themselves targets, and partly because it means that for the first time France does not have a first lady.

''A first lady is very important, especially for representation abroad,'' said Christophe Barbier, editor of L'Express magazine. ''At the G8 summit Cecilia Sarkozy illuminated the event which was good for the image of France.'' At that summit in June, Cecilia's image was flashed around the world when she showed up at the gala dinner on the arm of her husband and outshone other spouses in her elegant evening attire. She later raised eyebrows by leaving a day early.

However, French officials quickly pointed out that protocol did not demand a first lady be present at state events and opinion polls showed the vast majority of French people thought the split would have no impact on politics.

''French people are often ahead of their leaders,'' said presidential chronicler Clerc. ''I believe society has evolved a lot, lots of French have got divorced and remarried. There are a lot of fractured families everywhere.'' REUTERS RSA HS0827

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