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French first families go modern

Published on April 29, 2007

PARIS, April 29, 2007 (AFP) - Whoever wins next weekend's elections in France, life at the top is certain to undergo dramatic change -- with the arrival at the Elysee palace of a first family that shatters the time-honoured mould.

Both candidates — Socialist Segolene Royal and right-wing favourite Nicolas Sarkozy — are in relationships that fly in the face of presidential convention, though in many ways they accurately reflect the changing sociology of the country as a whole.

Royal, 53, would not only be the first woman president in French history, she would also be the first in an unmarried partnership. More than that: her partner — Francois Hollande — is leader of the Socialist Party, which will pose interesting constitutional challenges if she is elected.

Under Sarkozy, 52, attention will focus on his second wife Cecilia with whom he has had a passionate but troubled marriage. In recent weeks unsubstantiated rumours have circulated of more marital difficulties, prompting calls for greater openness in the way France reports the private lives of politicians.

Whichever pair enters the Elysee will send in a blast of modernity after 12 years of the Chiracs, whose bourgeois respectability sat well with the Louis XV furniture and Gobelins tapestries of the 18th century palace.

A devout Catholic, Bernadette Chirac performed the role of “first lady” to perfection — setting up her own charity for Paris hospitals, meeting dignitaries, but resolutely playing no part in her husband’s political career.


As the country’s first ever “first gentleman,” Hollande would find it a hard challenge to be as self-effacing as Madame Chirac.

Other women leaders — like Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher — have had consorts happy to remain in the background. But Hollande, 52, has led his partner’s political party for ten years, was until recently seen as a possible president himself, and certainly has strong views on policy.

The pair met while studying at the elite National Administration School (ENA) in the late 1970s, and were together recruited to work for Socialist president Francois Mitterrand. They have four children — the eldest of whom Thomas runs his mother’s Internet campaign site.

A genial figure whose balding portliness is a marked contrast to the Royal beauty, Hollande has had to swallow hard during the campaign as his partner’s policy pronouncements repeatedly parted company from Socialist Party orthodoxy.

Most embarrassing was the moment when Royal’s official spokesman described Hollande as “her most serious problem.” The spokesman was suspended for a month.

Aware that his ties to Royal would pose awkward questions about how presidential policy is decided, Hollande indicated recently that he will not live at the Elysee if she is elected — though this immediately fired up old Paris media-circle rumours about their relationship being under strain.


If the Hollande-Royal couple is the object of regular ill-informed speculation, the Sarkozys are even more of an enigma.   Sarkozy met his future wife in 1984 when he officiated as mayor at her first wedding. According to a recent biography, he was infatuated by the ex-model on the spot and pursued her till their marriage 12 years later.

By then he had also been married and divorced. Together they had four children from their first marriages — she two girls, he two boys — and in 1997 they had a son of their own, Louis.

Of Jewish-Spanish ancestry, Cecilia’s foreign roots match those of Sarkozy, who is half Hungarian and quarter Jewish. In 2004 she said she was proud “not to have a drop of French blood in my veins,” and both have come attack from the far-right for being unsuitable occupants of the Elysee.

When Sarkozy entered government in 2002, Cecilia had an office in the interior ministry — but in early 2005 she disappeared from view and it was reveale