John Schults  /  AP
French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Cecilia walk together during a garden party at the Elysee Palace in Paris, in this July 2004 file photo. Once seen as France's ultimate power couple, their relationship is on the rocks and France can read all about it, in the usually restrained press.
updated 8/29/2005 9:28:13 PM ET 2005-08-30T01:28:13

Young, dynamic and ambitious, Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy fashioned themselves as the ultimate power couple. They jogged together, worked together and coveted the media spotlight in the interior minister’s quest to become the next French president.

Now their relationship is on the rocks for all of France to see — or at least read about in the press, a mini-revolution in a country where the media usually honor a long tradition of keeping politicians’ personal lives private.

The juiciest revelation has been the glamorous Cecilia Sarkozy’s association with another man, splashed across a magazine cover in photos showing her, in sandals and sunglasses, strolling with him down a Manhattan sidewalk.

The very public outing has raised the question of whether the dalliance could prove a political liability for her husband — or a boost.

“Without Cecilia, can Sarko be president?” asked a banner headline in the tabloid France-Soir. The paper pondered how public opinion will view the Sarkozys and whether as a bachelor, he could become president.

Blog-tongues wag
The subject has spawned lengthy chatter on Internet blogs. And while the mainstream press had shied away from the story, the weekly Paris-Match broke that trend last Thursday.

The prestigious daily Le Monde plans to run a story this week, said political reporter Philippe Ridet, but the conservative daily Le Figaro, whose editorial line favors Sarkozy’s party, does not plan to touch it, said an editor.

A former model, Cecilia Sarkozy, 47, is a great-granddaughter of Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz. Until this summer, she was her husband’s chief of staff and an ever-present figure at political events.

More comfortable in designer denim than the skirt suits typical of political wives, she cut a modern figure beside the blunt-talking, populist Sarkozy, 50, who casts himself as a new breed of French politician.

Cafe clutch
Her alleged affair is with French events organizer Richard Attias, 45. Photos in Paris-Match show the pair smiling and holding hands on the terrace of a posh Paris cafe as well as sightseeing in New York.

In a hint of trouble to come, she told an interviewer this spring that she pictured herself in 10 years not as France’s first lady but in New York, jogging in Central Park.

According to Paris-Match, she and Attias met through work. He was hired to organize an American-style convention to anoint her husband as head of President Jacques Chirac’s conservative party in May.

Subsequently, Cecilia Sarkozy was spotted with Attias at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, which he also organized, and driving through Cannes in a convertible, the magazine claimed.

The interior minister has not commented on the Paris-Match report. But he did refer to his marital problems soon after rumors surfaced in May, taking the unusual step of doing so on national television: “Like millions of families, mine has experienced some difficulties,” he said in an interview. He then asked for media restraint.

Sarkozy has spent the past few years piling up posts that could serve as a springboard to the presidency, a job he openly covets. As France’s top cop he is the No. 2 government official. He leads the ruling party and has served as finance minister.

Popular for his no-nonsense style, Sarkozy shuns the political-speak of his peers. He gets results, even if critics fault him for an authoritarian bent and playing to the masses.

Borrowing from Camelot
Unlike most political couples in France, the Sarkozys welcomed the media into their lives. Just last year, Paris-Match featured them in a sprawling cover story; L’Express declared them couple of the year. Married in 1995 with one child, they drew comparisons to the Clintons and the Kennedys. Sarkozy even posed for a photo with his son playing under his desk, playing off the famous image of John-John Kennedy.

These days things look far less picture-perfect, but Sarkozy may have French tradition on his side as he moves forward with his career.

“Private life has never had an impact on the destiny of men in power in France,” said Frederic Dabi of IFOP polling agency, citing the long-kept secret of late President Francois Mitterrand’s illegitimate daughter.

The humanizing factor
In fact, Sarkozy now emerges as a regular guy. “This affair makes him likable, and more human,” Dabi said.

Many point to Sarkozy’s media-hungry ways as justification for the coverage of his wife’s alleged affair. Few doubt this master of spin will win sympathy points, but some question whether he can remain a viable political force without her.

“If he loses Cecilia, Nicolas Sarkozy could have trouble channeling his ambition,” France-Soir said in a front-page story Friday that credited Cecilia Sarkozy with giving her husband critical guidance and help preparing his speeches, crafting his “look” and overseeing his diet.

The newspaper published photographs of Nicolas Sarkozy on political outings this summer, highlighting his bare ring finger.

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