Sarkozy's marriage failure could hurt election hopes

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The on-off marriage of Nicolas Sarkozy, the French Interior Minister and possible future president, is "off" again, according to press reports at the weekend. Cécilia Sarkozy returned to her husband in January after a much-publicised break-up last year. According to an oblique report in the respected Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday and a report in The Sunday Telegraph, Mme Sarkozy has left her husband once again and returned to New York.

There have been insistent rumours in Paris for several weeks that the Sarkozy marriage - apparently saved last month - may be about to break-up definitively.

M. Sarkozy, 51, the favourite to win the main centre-right nomination for next year's presidential election, has asked the media not to pry into his marriage. Under French law, it is illegal to write about the private lives of public figures.

A book published this month, Entre le coeur et la raison (Between Heart and Reason) by Valérie Domain, a journalist, is a "fictionalised" version of the Sarkozy marriage. Mme Domain had originally written an investigative book - with Mme Sarkozy's co-operation - but this was withdrawn before publication last year after protests by both M. and Mme Sarkozy.

A definitive break-up of his marriage would hurt M. Sarkozy's chances of becoming president but it is not clear how much. In opinion polls at the weekend, his main rival for the centre-right "nomination", the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, slumped by nine points and M. Sarkozy's popularity remained strong.