Cherche Sa femme: the mystery of Mme Sarkozy
By John Lichfield in Paris
Published: 25 April 2007
The French media is crammed with election coverage but has published, or broadcast, hardly a word on the topic that most obsesses the Paris media- political village.
Eleven days before the second round of the presidential election, a legally-enforced code of silence surrounds the state of relations between the front-runner, Nicolas Sarkozy, and his wife, Cécilia.
Mme Sarkozy, 49, briefly split with her husband two years ago and then returned amid great public fanfare.
She voted along with M. Sarkozy - and presumably also for M. Sarkozy - in the first round of the election last Sunday.
This was the first time that she had been seen on the campaign trail for two weeks. Mme Sarkozy has since disappeared from public view once again.
When they voted on Sunday at Neuilly-sur-Seine, a wealthy Paris suburb, relations between the couple seemed, at the very least, strained. Reports of another serious rift in the Sarkozy marriage have been the object of constant, lurid speculation - even songs - on the French-language internet over the past 10 days.
Stories have been published in the British press and other foreign newspapers, suggesting that Mme Sarkozy has again left her husband for another man - in the midst of the most important political campaign of his life.
A source within M. Sarkozy's party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), told The Independent that it was now "generally known" that there had been a further rift in what had once seemed to be a perfect, power marriage. But the source suggested that the rift might once again be temporary.
In almost any other democratic country, a split between the presidential front-runner and his wife in mid-campaign would be explosive, headline news. But not in France.
Under French law, it is illegal for the media to discuss private lives, even those of high-profile public figures. The law also applies to foreign publications,such as The Independent, which circulate in France.
The law is well-intentioned but can have perverse effects. M. Sarkozy's allegedly fragile and hyper-active personality is at the centre of the second round campaign. He is the clear favourite to defeat the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, on 6 May.
If his wife has left him at such a sensitive time, does the public not have the right to know about it? For 14 years, the French media was unable to disclose the fact that the late President François Mitterrand had a second family and an illegitimate daughter, Mazarine.
In one of the few articles to appear on the "Cécilia mystery" in the mainstream French press, Daniel Schneidermann, the media columnist in Libération, asked why the French media had not been "innoculated" by the "Mazarine" experience.
"A wife leaving the marriage has far more serious consequences, both physical and psychological, than some extramarital affair," M. Schneidermann wrote. "[M. Sarkozy's] wife even had her own office at his campaign headquarters."
Liberation's columnist also complained that the "Pravdaisation" of the French press had gone even further. Without mentioning the rumours that Cécilia had disappeared, the magazine Paris Match - owned by a group belonging to a friend of M. Sarkozy - published a picture spread this month headlined Revoilà Cécilia (Cécilia is back again).
The pictures showed her in a fuchsia dress at a charity gala in Paris. There was no sign of M. Sarkozy.
Guy Birenbaum, a publisher and political commentator, who has published books on the cosy relations between politics and the media in France, said: "The Sarkozy marriage is obviously a legitimate question for the French media. They ignore it not really because of the law but because they are afraid and because there is a deference towards power."