The French First Lady Keeps 'Em Guessing

Will Cecilia Sarkozy live up to her billing as France's Jackie Kennedy? Does she even want to?

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Cecilia Sarkozy and her husband outside the Elysee Palace

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PARIS—Her appearances never fail to cause a sensation, with photographers vying for her attention and her every step scrutinized for clues to her disposition. Striding down the red carpet at the presidential Elysée Palace on Inauguration Day last May, surrounded by her children and stepchildren, she reminded many of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At the G-8 summit of the world's most industrialized nations in Germany last June, the former model, resplendent in an Azzedine Alaia-designed black lace dress, appeared to belong to a different world from that of her peers. France, which likes to consider itself the world's arbiter of glamour and style, has found a new icon in first lady Cécilia Sarkozy.

Variously described as inscrutable, elegant, distant, and rebellious, Madame Sarkozy, 49, has dominated news coverage and conversations across Europe since her husband was elected to the French presidency five months ago. While the outward image may be reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy, a more accurate comparison may be with Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert's profoundly unhappy and troubled fictional heroine.

For behind her evident charisma, Mrs. Sarkozy's at times seemingly erratic behavior has become a cause of concern for Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency. "He is afraid of her fits," says a political analyst who knows both and spoke on condition of anonymity. "She is capricious, unpredictable."

The fascination with Cécilia Sarkozy was accentuated this summer by her still somewhat mysterious role in securing the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor jailed for eight years by Col. Muammar Qadhafi on trumped-up charges that they purposely infected more than 400 Libyan children with HIV. Mrs. Sarkozy has refused to appear before a parliamentary committee seeking to investigate the conditions of the release, even though by her own account she spent some 50 hours negotiating directly with Qadhafi. Her only comment on the matter, in an interview with a French regional newspaper, was that she went to Libya "as a mother."

Enigma. The Libyan episode gave rise to demands that the first lady's role be clearly defined, and the Elysée Palace promised during the summer to delineate her responsibilities and the causes she will promote. But such an announcement has yet to be made. Last week, she did not join her husband on an official visit to Bulgaria in what was seen as an effort to avoid rekindling that controversy.

For the French public, she intrigues, perplexes, and infuriates, suddenly appearing only to vanish again. Rumors circulate as to her whereabouts and her relationship with the president. She failed to vote in the second round of the presidential election last May and remained out of sight on Election Day, showing up at the elegant victory dinner she had meticulously arranged only at the last moment and only after numerous phone calls from her husband and children. "You loved Jacqueline Kennedy; you are going to adore Cécilia Sarkozy," the president told his guests before she arrived.

Several weeks later, she abruptly left the G-8 summit in Heiligendamm to attend her daughter's 20th-birthday party in Paris, leaving her husband as the only head of state without a spouse at the formal summit dinner. Yet the most politically embarrassing episode to date was her last-minute decision to skip the picnic given for her and her husband by President and Mrs. Bush and Bush's parents at the family's Kennebunkport compound in August. Claiming to suffer from a severe sore throat, she telephoned Laura Bush the same morning to say she could not attend. The problem: French journalists saw her placidly window-shopping in the New Hampshire town of Wolfeboro, where the Sarkozys spent their summer vacation, both the evening before and the day after she was too ill for the picnic.

For years, the future first lady worked unstintingly next to her husband (it's a second marriage for both), acting as his press secretary when he was a young deputy and later when he served as budget minister. She occupied an office next to his when he was the interior minister and even considered running for office herself. But in 2005, the couple separated, Mrs. Sarkozy moved to New York in a very public affair with another man, and her husband had a relationship with a journalist from Le Figaro newspaper. She agreed to return but warned that the thought of being first lady "bores me stiff."