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Le divorce

The Sarkozys quietly call it quits, and the French don't seem to care. Why can't Americans be so civilized?

October 19, 2007

I don't love you. Moi non plus. The divorce hearing took just 15 minutes, and with it, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his manifestly miserable first femme, Cecilia Ciganer-Albeniz, were officially no longer a couple. The French, predictably, reacted with a shrug.

The Sarkozys' 11-year marriage had been famously troubled since at least 2005, when she ran off to New York with another man for eight months and the French media started scrutinizing their relationship. Madame Sarkozy did not vote for her husband. She rarely appeared in public with him and looked grim when she did. And to her credit, she made no effort to impersonate a good political wife.

The only surprise in France was that the Sarkozys' marital woes made it into the news at all. In the past, French politicians' peccadilloes have been off-limits; newspapers did not even report the existence of President Francois Mitterrand's illegitimate daughter until his funeral. That taboo was broken with the rise of Sarkozy's political fortunes. Even so, the end of L'affair Sarkozy was refreshingly dignified -- no tabloid tell-alls, no fighting over finances, no disputes over custody of their 10-year-old son. The marriage had obviously become painful and humiliating; its demise isn't a tragedy, it's a mercy.

The French example makes one wonder when Americans will begin handling the flammable mixture of sex and politics more sensibly. Many voters seem to believe that politicians who have troubled marriages are flawed people. This belief appears unshaken despite abundant ancient and latter-day evidence that happiness or lack thereof in marriage is a lousy predictor of a leader's performance. (How a politician treats underlings, old friends, rivals and campaign contributors is generally a more accurate barometer of character, though such topics don't sell tabloids.) Voters should know that anyone driven enough to succeed in modern American politics -- like anyone at the top of other workaholic, hard-driving professions -- is, by definition, highly likely to have strained his or her marriage, whether or not adultery was involved. Yet the urge to equate marital rectitude with political rectitude remains strong.

This campaign season, the front-runners for the presidential nomination in both U.S. political parties are known to have experienced major marital woes. So this would be a good year for Americans to practice the fine French art of divorcing judgments about sex from judgments about policy. Vive la tolerance.

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