French are focused on love lives of their top politicians

PARIS - The French can be very, well, French when it comes to the personal lives of their leaders.

They take affairs, illegitimate children and tumultuous marriages in stride.

But they suddenly turn traditional when it comes to the role of the first lady. They do not like the idea of Nicolas Sarkozy entertaining world leaders alone at the Elysee Palace. It is not comme il faut.

Maybe that's why this country is so mesmerized with the question of whether the beautiful Cecilia Sarkozy, a former Schiaparelli model who was for years her husband's close political aide, is going to serve as the chatelain of the Elysee, or run off again with a lover.

No one seems sure whether she will bolt, leaving the entertaining duties to Sarko's mother, an elegant lawyer, or agree to play a limited role at the palace.

"We have a hard time imagining an intermittent first lady at the Elysee," sniffed Le Temps, a daily newspaper, online.

Cecilia was missing in action during the final weeks of her husband's campaign.

"I don't see myself as first lady," the 49-year-old said in 2005, "That bores me."

Bound by strict privacy laws, the French press shies away from printing the skinny on relationships, even though the skinny French public loves gossiping on the subject.

Trying to fathom what is going on with power couples here is like watching a French movie - scenes brimming with emotion and ambiguity.

Cecilia left Sarko for several months in 2005, moving to the United States to live with a French communications consultant - reportedly a response to her husband's affair with a French journalist.

When Paris Match published pictures of Cecilia with her lover in New York, Sarko became furious with his good friend, Arnaud Lagardere, the magazine's owner. Soon, the editor was fired.

Lagardere stepped in again to kill a story in another publication he owns, Le Journal du Dimanche. On Sunday, the paper was going to reveal that Cecilia did not bother to vote.

On the night Sarko won the presidency, Parisians were watching Cecilia's every move. She was not there when he won or when he made his acceptance speech, and some of her friends were saying that the marriage was over.

But her two pretty blonde daughters from a previous marriage apparently prevailed on her to show up later that night at a victory rally. She came dressed down in a gray sweater and white slacks, in what one friend said had originally been her "escape outfit," and looked distracted as her husband spoke.

At the post-rally party, Paris Match - now following the Sarko script - was given an exclusive on their happy reunion. They were in a hotel suite, the magazine said, behaving "like lovers."

"And the new president, regaining for an instant the taste of rhythm that invaded him in his youth, took a step in dance," the story said. "In front of all their friends reunited, he dances for a single person: Cecilia."

When Paris isn't fixated on Cecilia and Sarko, it's buzzing about the town's other power couple.

As Segolene Royal tries to build on her strong showing to become the Socialist candidate for president in 2012, her relationship with the father of her four children and the head of her party, Francois Hollande, grows more byzantine.

She scooted past Hollande - who wanted to run himself - and now she wants to eclipse him totally. This competition - the opposite of the Bill/Hillary partnership - certainly did not help her candidacy. "Every morning I would open the newspapers and ask myself which Socialist was going to attack me over what I was saying," she told a Socialist conference the other day.

Their relationship is the subject of a new book, "La Femme Fatale," by two respected political reporters from Le Monde. The couple is suing to have some passages cut.

The book quotes an interview in which Hollande was asked where he would live if Sego won. "At my house!" he replied.

Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.