The aura of youth and indestructible energy cultivated by President Nicolas Sarkozy was dealt a severe blow yesterday when he collapsed while jogging at Versailles.
One of the first people to rush to his aid was his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkzoy. She was seen by an eye-witness arriving on a motorbike from the presidential retreat nearby.
President Sarkozy, 54, was under cardiological and neurological surveillance last night at the Val-de-Grâce military hospital in Paris but the Elysée Palace insisted that he had been the victim of a relatively banal fainting fit – or "vasovagal episode" – and had not lost consciousness.
Such fits, which are rarely serious, can be brought on by stress or too much physical exercise. The Elysée said that the President was expected to be well enough to leave hospital today.
M. Sarkozy's life-long friend, Patrick Balkany, mayor of Levallois-Perret in the Paris suburbs, said last night: "He is fine. He is shouting at people. He is hungry."
M. Balkany also suggested that a rigid diet, adopted by the President recently "to keep his figure", may have contributed to his sudden malaise.
The presidential couple often spend the weekend at La Lanterne, a retreat in Versailles, officially available to French prime ministers but commandeered by M. Sarkozy.
An eyewitness who saw him collapse said that and his body-guards made him lie down behind a tree. Passers-by were ordered to keep their distance. Within minutes, she said, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy arrived riding a motor-cycle.
The political impact of the presidential fainting fit could be more awkward than the medical implications. M. Sarkozy, nicknamed the "hyper-president", has sold himself to the French public, and the wider world, as the tireless, can-do successor to 26 years of elderly French leadership.
One of the most startling images of his first days in office in May 2007 was footage of the President of the Republic jogging in the Bois de Boulogne in a sweat-shirt marked NYPD (New York Police department.)
He has since set a punishing pace in both his political and private life: divorcing; marrying a pop star after a whirlwind romance; and taking hold of most of the levers of French government, including those usually held by the Prime Minister.
He runs for an hour in the grounds of the Elysée Palace several times a week but always brings his mobile phone with him. On one occasion a senior Elysée official was briefing journalists when he received a call from the President running in the grounds.
The Elysée Palace last published the results of the M. Sarkozy's health checks three weeks ago. His heart and blood pressure were said to be normal.
M. Sarkozy had a brief hospital stay in October 2007 for a throat complaint. This visit was not revealed until three months later. Secrecy has often surrounded the health of previous French presidents. Georges Pompidou died suddenly in office in April 1974 from a rare form of blood cancer. The cause of his death was not fully revealed until 1982. President François Mitterrand suffered from liver cancer throughout his two seven-year terms (1981-95), but this was not revealed until nine days after his death in 1996.
President Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) was reported to have visited Canada for surgery in 2003 but this was never confirmed. In September 2005, he spent a week in the Val-de-Grâce hospital after what was described as a "little vascular accident".
The first French political personality to react to President Sarkozy's illness was his Socialist political opponent, Bertrand Delanoe, the mayor of Paris. He said that he wished M. Sarkozy a "prompt recovery".
The Prime Minister, François Fillon, left his home in the department of Sarthe, near Le Mans, to return to the Paris area to visit the President. Gordon Brown also sent a private note wishing M. Sarkozy a speedy recovery.