History buffs know that the last French leader to divorce while in office was Napoleon, who ejected his empress, Josephine, from the palace in 1809. That is, until Oct. 18, when newly elected French president Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, and his glamorous wife, Cécilia, 49—a former model who once acted as his chief political adviser—suddenly announced they had not only separated but officially, legally divorced. American voters might have reacted with shock; in laissez-faire France the reaction was closer to a Gallic shrug. “It’s up to them, and we have more pressing matters in life,” says cultural commentator Agnès Poirier.
Not that the details weren’t riveting. The couple met when Nicolas, then the mayor of a ritzy Paris suburb, officiated at Cécilia’s first marriage, to a TV star. Years later they reconnected, wed in 1996 and then separated while each pursued an affair—she with an American event planner (they were spotted apartment hunting in New York City), he with a French journalist. After reconciling in 2006, the pair, who each have two grown children of their own and a 10-year-old son, Louis, together, mounted a united front while Nicolas targeted and won the nation’s presidency last May. Then, seemingly, no sooner had he moved into the ornate Élysée Palace than observers began wondering where his wife was. “I want to live forthright, without lies, without a falsehood, freely,” Cécilia told French Elle in an interview that hit newsstands two days after the divorce announcement, insisting she was not leaving the president for another man. “But I’m as scared as any woman who jumps into a void.”
The president was on an official trip to Portugal when the news broke and refused to comment. “I was elected by the French people to solve their problems, not comment on my private life,” he told a newspaper. Back in Paris his wife, who has taken up residence at the couple’s own apartment, was nothing if not supportive. “Nicolas is a great leader,” she told Elle. “Night and day for 20 years I didn’t let go of that belief, but today he no longer needs me.”