Byline: DAVID JONES;PETER ALLEN
TWO moments dramatically symbolised Nicolas Sarkozy's assumption of power yesterday as President of France: being entrusted with the country's secret nuclear codes and a very public embrace of his wife. Bullish and imposing, despite standing just 5ft 5in tall (without his Cuban heels), the man known as the new Napoleon urged his nation to 'hold out a hand' and bury their differences.
He said: 'I will defend the identity of France. There is a need to unite the French people. .. because never before has public confidence been so shaken and so fragile.' Ostensibly, Sarkozy's plea for unity and reconciliation was directed towards the grim suburban sink estates, where disaffected young rabble-rousers he once dismissed as 'scum' have torched cars in protest at his promised hard-line social reforms, and where, yesterday, riot police were on standby as the new president took office.
But his plea might also have been directed a bit closer to home. As he marched into the Elysee Palace to be sworn in, he tried to end months of speculation that his marriage is in crisis with a highly visible display of affection towards his enigmatic wife, Cecilia.
He gave the glamorous 49-year-old - who towers five inches above him - a tender caress on the cheek, while she later kissed him on the lips.
Even in a country whose strict privacy laws allow public figures to conduct themselves scandalously without fear of exposure, the Sarkozy marriage has become a public soap opera, spiced by periodic separations, passionate affairs and emotional reunions.
Inexplicably, Cecilia, whose reed-slim figure and unlined features belie her age, went missing for two weeks as the election campaign reached its climax, reappearing only when her husband's election victory was declared.
Her vanishing act (it is thought she went on holiday with friends to Florida) prompted inevitable questions about her suitability as First Lady, a role that historically conveys enormous influence, not to mention privilege and glamour.
But Nicolas's decision to kiss his wife publicly was obviously intended to allay such thoughts, though she appeared surprised by his expression of affection.
Despite this piece of theatre, the French chattering classes are pondering whether 'La Sarko' actually wants to take her place amid the unrivalled splendour of the Elysee Palace.
They recall her response some months before the elections when she was asked how she envisaged life were her husband to become president. 'I don't see myself as a First Lady,' she said. 'That bores me. I'm not politically correct. I potter about in jeans, combat trousers or cowboy boots. I don't fit the mould.' Where would she be a decade from now? 'In the U.S., jogging around Central Park,' she said tartly.
This first reply showed she did not intend to emulate the wife of her husband's predecessor, Jacques Chirac.
Bernadette ignored Jacques' serial infidelity to run charities and serve as a local government official in a farming town. Cecilia's second reply was downright tactless. For it was in New York that she had a passionate, yearlong affair with wealthy events organiser Richard Attias. The big question is whether 52-year-old Sarkozy's victory has fired his wife with a desire to serve the nation. If so, yesterday's kiss was the first step towards a delicate rapprochement.
As for the French public, they have long appeared to accept the sexual proclivities of politicians. Their attitude dates back to 1899, when President Felix Faure reputedly suffered a fatal seizure while having sex with his mistress.
The upright Charles de Gaulle apart, they even seem to regard extramarital affairs as a 'presidential right'.
MOREOVER, according to a controversial new book about sex and French politics, Sexus Politicus, an adulterous candidate fares better at the polls because it proves his virility. …