France braced for confirmation that the Sarkozys will divorce

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Rumours swirled around France yesterday of an imminent announcement of a divorce between President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Cécilia.

The Elysée Palace refused to comment on a report in a provincial newspaper that Mme Sarkozy had given an interview to announce the end of her marriage.

L'Est Republicain – the only newspaper to be granted an interview by Mme Sarkozy since her husband was elected in May – said on its internet site yesterday morning that the Elysée Palace planned to confirm the rift at its weekly press conference in the afternoon.

The press briefing was later cancelled. The presidential spokesman, David Martenon, said he would not comment on "press rumours, especially on a subject like this".

There have been renewed reports in recent weeks of deep tensions within the Sarkozy marriage. President and Mme Sarkozy have not been seen in public for weeks. The President's wife has not attended an official function for almost three months.

The couple separated for eight months in 2005, when Mme Sarkozy moved to New York to live with another man. She also went missing for long periods during the presidential election campaign in the spring.

The French first lady caused a flurry of speculation in August when she failed to turn up with her husband for a picnic with President George Bush and his family in Maine.

Last week, Mme Sarkozy pulled out of a presidential trip to Sofia where the couple were supposed to receive congratulations for their role in negotiating the release in July of the Bulgarian nurses imprisoned in Libya.

The investigative newspaper Le Canard Enchainé reported this week that officials at the Elysée Palace had been asked to produce a report listing all previous French or foreign leaders who had divorced while in office. The newspaper said the Elysée had come up with only one, the Greek prime minister Georges Papandreou.

President Sarkozy is also reported to have told the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, that he was "preparing for a bachelor life". The conversation – reported by Georgian officials to US journalists – is said to have occurred when France played Georgia in the Rugby World Cup last month.

To add to the speculation, the Swiss newspaper La Tribune de Genève reported that Mme Sarkozy had been seen frequently in Geneva in recent weeks.

Neither she nor her husband has moved into the living quarters at the Elysée Palace. She was reported to be living partly at the family apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine and partly at the weekend residence of French prime ministers, La Lanterne, in the grounds of the palace of Versailles.

L'Est Republicain said it had been told by Elysée Palace sources that a separation, and then divorce, were imminent. "Things should move quite rapidly because a divorce petition is expected to be filed with the court in Nanterre in the near future," the newspaper said.