No-show by Cécilia gets French tongues wagging over First Marriage

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The Independent Online

For première dame, read prima donna. The unpredictable French first lady, Cécilia Sarkozy, threatens to become as celebrated for her "no-shows" as an opera diva.

Mme Sarkozy dropped out of a long-planned visit yesterday to Sofia where she was to be honoured for her involvement in the release of the Bulgarian nurses in July, who had been held prisoner in Libya. President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to the Bulgarian capital yesterday but – to the disappointment of the families of the released nurses – he was not accompanied by his wife.

Mme Sarkozy has also cancelled at short notice a live appearance on French television this weekend in which she was to pay tribute to her friend, the Justice minister, Rachida Dati.

Since her husband's election in May, the French first lady has made more headlines for her non-appearances than for her appearances. She caused something approaching a diplomatic incident in August when she failed to turn up for a hot-dog picnic with President George Bush and his family in Maine. She pleaded a severe sore throat but was seen shopping the next day.

French newspapers pointed out yesterday that in more than four months since her husband took office, Mme Sarkozy has made just three appearances in her formal, or ceremonial, role as first lady. The last of these appearances was on France's national day, 14 July.

Reports have once again surfaced of a rift between M. Sarkozy and his wife. These rumours were denied yesterday by one of Mme Sarkozy's closest friends. "They slag each other off like all husbands and wives do but nothing more than that," said Isabelle Balkany, the wife of Patrick Balkany, the mayor of Levallois-Perret on the north-west fringes of Paris.

Officially, Mme Sarkozy decided to cancel her trip to Sofia because her involvement in the release of the Libyan prisoners was widely attacked in France and "she did not want to revive the criticism".

If that was the case, her decision backfired badly. Her failure to accompany her husband to Sofia drew critical and puzzled headlines in the French press yesterday. "Cecilia skives off from Bulgaria," said Le Parisien.

Mme Sarkozy has been variously described in France as a new Jackie Kennedy or a new Diana, Princess of Wales. She is sometimes said to have strong political influence over her husband. At other times, the couple are said to be scarcely speaking,

In 2005, the Sarkozys separated for six months. Mme Sarkozy moved to New York to live with another man. During her husband's election campaign last spring and early summer, she disappeared from public view for long periods and failed to turn up to vote in the second round of the election.

Mme Sarkozy has made it clear from the beginning that she does not plan to play any of the traditional roles of French first ladies, such as opening hospitals or collecting money for good causes. The Elysee Palace promised that her role would be officially "defined" in September. Nothing has been announced.

The Sarkozy family was also supposed to move into a refurbished family apartment in the Elysee Palace last month. The work has not yet begun.

Mme Sarkozy is said to be living partly in the family flat at Neuilly, just west of Paris, and partly in La Lanterne, the French equivalent of Chequers, a large U-shaped, one-storey residence in the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. This building is supposed to be used by French prime ministers. At Mme Sarkozy's request, the house was surrendered by the prime minister, François Fillon, in return for another "official" country house.

Residents of the western suburbs of Paris have since complained of the frequency of helicopter flights between La Lanterne and the capital. According to French newspapers yesterday, Mme Sarkozy is hardly ever seen in the Elysee Palace, which contains the official presidential residence and offices. "She passes by like a gust of wind," one official told the newspaper Libération.

Mme Sarkozy holds her breakfast and lunch meetings at the Hotel Bristol, close to the Elysee Palace, the favourite Paris hotel of Hollywood film stars and Arab princes. "She works mainly through text messages and mobile phone calls," another official said.

Elysee Palace sources say that, rather than make public appearances, Mme Sarkozy has decided to use her influence and position to help some of the scores of "suffering" individuals who write to her each day.

Mme Balkany, her close friend, told Le Parisen: "She will only do things that she considers to be truly useful.

"To be on show in a beautiful dress is not what she wants."

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