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French not fazed by Sarkozy divorce

92% say opinion of leader the same

President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, talked during Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on July 14. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, talked during Bastille Day celebrations in Paris on July 14. (LAURENT BAHEUX/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

PARIS - The French, on the right and on the left, have embraced the news that President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cecilia, have divorced with a surprising amount of equanimity and a collective shrug.

It's partly because the French no longer treat marriage as a particularly sacred institution. The marriage rate here has plunged more than 30 percent in the past generation, and nearly 1 out of 2 marriages end in divorce. It's also because the French still seem to think that if Sarkozy is roaming the Elysee Palace all alone, it's nobody's business but his own.

According to a poll conducted after the news broke on Thursday, 79 percent declared Le Divorce of "little or no importance" in the country's political life. A whopping 92 percent of the more than 800 people polled said the divorce did not change their opinion of the president. "In France, we still don't put private morality at the center of political life," said Stephane Rozes of CSA, the research group that conducted the poll.

As the French well know, leaders of other countries have seen their marriages spectacularly fall apart while in office and survived, including Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou of Greece and President Carlos Menem of Argentina.

But never before in its modern history has a French leader divorced. Napoleon Bonaparte came closest when he got his marriage to Josephine annulled so he could stay a good Catholic and still marry the young Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, who gave him both a son and a dynasty.

More recent first marriages stayed together, as first ladies chose to keep their sorrows to themselves. Danielle Mitterrand lived with the reality that Francois led a double life, with a mistress and a daughter who was born out of wedlock. Bernadette Chirac confessed in a book that she suffered from terrible jealousy - but would never let Jacques go.

Cecilia Sarkozy was different. It was never a secret that the former model, who was absent for much of the election campaign this year, was not cut out to play the role of first femme. Asked in 2005 how she envisioned her life in 10 years, she replied, "In the United States, jogging in Central Park."

In a long interview in the newspaper L'Est Republicain on Friday, she acknowledged that she left Nicolas Sarkozy in 2005 for several months because she had fallen in love with another man, and had asked for a divorce because she no longer wanted the pressures and demands of public life.

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