Think you’re having a bad day? France’s new president Nicolas Sarkozy is having probably the worst week of his life, dealing concurrently with a massive public transit strike and a divorce. It looks like the end of his marriage has come at the same time as the end of his honeymoon period as president.
The presidential palace announced yesterday that Cécilia Sarkozy and Nicolas have divorced “by mutual consent” At the same time, Sarkozy is dealing with the first major challenge to his attempts to shake up the French social and economic system.
France has ground to a virtual standstill as public sector workers, mainly in transport and electricity, stage a massive strike over a proposed change to their special pension rights. Yesterday’s concurrent strike and divorce announcement is being called "Black Thursday" in France, and will probably come to be known as the day that Sarkozy lost control of the positive news agenda that he’s had since he became president five months ago. Sarkozy’s whole schtick has been his “ironman” persona, a strong, determined and energetic leader that is determined to strong-arm the changes that France desperately needs. But the collapse of his marriage so soon into his presidency, as well as speculation that the marriage actually ended before the election but Sarkozy has been keeping it a secret, will surely make him lose respect with the public.
Watching the coverage of the strike and the divorce on channel 4 last night (the strike has majorly effected Britain because the England-South Africa rugby final was in Paris and the Eurostar trains are down), I could help but draw an astonished comparison to my homeland. As channel 4 interviewed people at the strike about the divorce, they seemed barely interested. Per usual, the French public has widely considered this to be a private matter and none of their concern. “I don’t really care about the divorce, that’s his life,” one French transit striker told channel 4. “But my pension, I’m really worried about that.”
Can you imagine if this happened in the US? Imagine Barack Obama winning the election, moving into the White House, and five months later announce he was getting a divorce. He’d probably be impeached! In all seriousness I don’t know what would happen, but I think in the US it would be a very serious matter and dominate the news cycle for quite some time.
In France, however, the divorce is more of a metaphor for Sarkozy’s real problems out on the streets. At a time when he needs to look his most tough to intimidate the unions into submission, he looks vulnerable and weak. Not a good bargaining position to be in, and reports today are indicated Sarko may be willing to negotiate with the unions.
Why Cécilia Sarkozy has chosen to end her 11-year marriage (and 19-year relationship) with Sarko is anybody’s guess, but it was clear right from the start that this head-strong woman was not relishing her role as first lady. Since Sarko was elected Mme Sarkozy has barely been seen. She failed to show up for a number of very important events, which included a no-show at a hot dog picnic with George Bush and family in Maine in August. One person who knows the couple well told Britain’s The Independent that the couple have a "creative-destructive, love-hate" relationship. "He needs her but she detests the idea of just being the 'wife of' someone. The more powerful he becomes, the more she detests it," the friend told the paper.
The couple did seperate for 10 months in 2005, after Mme Sarkozy began a relationship with another man. But then they got back together. So French!